Orioles new ... and improved?

Offseason additions will make O's better, but experts say team must wait for young Birds to take wing

January 31, 2010|By Dan Connolly | dan.connolly@baltsun.com

When Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail headed into this offseason, he had an extensive wish list of upgrades for 2010.

The coming season is supposed to be more about wins and losses than player development, he proclaimed in September.

MacPhail's focus included a top-of-the-rotation starter, one or two right-handed hitters to play the corner infield positions, an established late-inning reliever and perhaps more bullpen help.

Position-wise, anyway, each goal was met - MacPhail traded for veteran starter Kevin Millwood, signed first baseman Garrett Atkins, third baseman Miguel Tejada and closer Mike Gonzalez, and re-signed versatile left-hander Mark Hendrickson.

Whether the offseason moves - all one-year contracts except for Gonzalez's two-year deal - will help the Orioles break their 12-season streak of losing is open to interpretation.

"Let's face it, it wasn't a good free-agent year and the premium free agents are not coming to Baltimore these days, so given that, I'd say they did pretty well," ESPN baseball reporter Tim Kurkjian said.

"They had to get a first baseman, and they did that. They had to get a third baseman, and they did that. They had to get a closer, and they did that. They did those three things without giving up the farm and not losing anyone significant from their major league roster. So, there is no doubt about it, the Orioles are a better team - maybe a much better team - than last year."

A much better club than 2009's 64-98 version shouldn't be difficult to design. But will the offseason refinements make a dent in the American League East standings, where the game's behemoths, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, roost?

"No, it's not good enough," Kurkjian said. "We are talking about the world champion Yankees, who I'll remind you have also gotten better with [Curtis] Granderson and [ Javier] Vazquez, and are still in a position to do whatever they want, and the Red Sox probably got a little better, too."

Each Orioles addition has a qualifier attached: Millwood is not considered a true ace; Gonzalez blew six saves in 16 chances last year; Atkins is coming off his worst season; and Tejada is switching positions. But the moves had an obvious purpose: to fill holes with solid veterans without spending too much money or creating long-term blockages for the organization's prospects.

All told, the Orioles' five moves, including Hendrickson, will cost them roughly $33 million - about one quarter of what outfielder Matt Holliday [seven years, $120 million] received from the St. Louis Cardinals this winter.

"I like their offseason. I don't love their offseason," said Ken Rosenthal, senior baseball writer for FOXSports.com. "They still have not made that dramatic move that will dramatically improve their team and energize their fan base and get them into the discussion again. In their defense, maybe they feel it is not time."

Rosenthal thinks a realistic goal for the Orioles this season would be 75 wins, which would be a double-digit increase in victories but still a long way from the playoff race.

"For the Orioles to get to the next step, No. 1, their young pitchers have to really come on, and No. 2, they are going to have to be a player in free agency - and not just marginal players, but big players," he said.

In MacPhail's three offseasons, the Orioles have not signed a free agent to a contract longer than two years. In 2006, the year before MacPhail took charge, the Orioles signed four players to three-year deals, including a trio of relievers for a combined $42.5 million.

"Look at that reliever triumvirate, that was typical. In the past, they have just locked themselves in for too long," said Jeff Passan, baseball writer for Yahoo Sports. "This is all about extracting value in the short term, and that's what they are doing now. If nothing else, it has been a pretty efficient offseason for them."

Among national writers, Passan is probably the most effusive about the Orioles' future. Despite Yahoo Sports' ranking the Orioles 21st in its current preseason power poll, Passan recently wrote about the club as potentially being among the pleasant surprises in 2010.

"They are young, they are talented and they are deep, and that's the thing that really struck me, the amount of really good to possibly great young players that they have," Passan said. "It's a very rare thing to see this amount of talent coming up at the same time."

Still, Passan offers a point of caution: The Orioles are in the AL East.

"You put them in either of the central divisions, particularly the American League Central, and I think they have a fighting chance of winning it," Passan said. "But the reality of the situation is, realignment isn't coming soon, and even if it were, the Orioles are not moving out of there. They are stuck, and that's a problem."

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