This was supposed to be a season in which the Orioles got better.
But rocked by the second-worst start in team history, the Orioles fired manager Dave Trembley on Friday, a move that might placate a frustrated fan base but does little to address other organizational concerns.
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail begins the search for a long-term manager for the team with the major leagues' worst record, which has seen some of its young core players regress and attendance dwindle at one of baseball's most revered ballparks.
All those factors have called into question the progress of MacPhail's rebuilding plan to return the once-proud organization to prominence.
"I have no doubt whatsoever that not only we are on the right path, we are on the only path that we can take if we are serious about ever being a contender in the American League East," MacPhail said during an afternoon news conference to announce third base coach Juan Samuel as the team's interim manager. "I wish it was easier, but going the way we were going about it wasn't going to get it done. We needed to skew young. I wish it would come faster. I truly do, but there's not one scintilla [of doubt] in my mind that this is what we have to do."
Well on the way to a 13th consecutive losing season and just the third 100-plus-loss season in team history, MacPhail acknowledged that there's no quick fix to what ails the Orioles, and he is committed to staying the course. He also made it clear that nobody in the organization believes the Orioles' 15-39 record is a product of Trembley, who compiled a 187-283 record in parts of four seasons managing the club, the second-worst winning percentage (.398) of any manager in team history.
"Nobody believes that making this change is going to magically solve all the problems and issues we have, but we did reach a point where we thought this was the appropriate thing to do," said MacPhail, who summoned Trembley to his Warehouse office Thursday night after the club returned from an 0-6 road trip.
"I'm not really giving up on the wins and losses just yet. I'm still hopeful that we're going to end this year with a better record than we did a year ago. Obviously, we've handicapped ourselves greatly in that regard, but I'm not giving up on that."
While even the most optimistic Orioles executive didn't think the club would contend this season, the expectation was that it would show significant improvement and be in position to potentially contend as early as 2011. Instead, MacPhail acknowledged that the team has taken a "giant step" backward.
However even more discouraging than the team's abysmal win/loss record is that most of the players who represent the team's young nucleus are playing far worse than they did last year. Center fielder Adam Jones, an All-Star and Gold Glove winner last season, entered Friday hitting just .249 with a .271 on-base percentage. Fellow outfielder Nolan Reimold is hitting just .148 at Triple-A Norfolk after he was one of the Orioles' best hitters last season.
Outfielder Nick Markakis, the team's highest-paid player with a six-year, $66.1 million deal, has just three home runs, the same number as leadoff man Corey Patterson.
Catcher Matt Wieters, who made his big league debut last season amid monumental expectations, is hitting just .240 and showing very little of the power that he exhibited both at Georgia Tech and in the minor leagues.
Young starting pitchers Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen have also had their rough spots this season, calling further into question whether the Orioles have overvalued their young talent, something that has hindered them in the past.
Several baseball executives contacted in recent days said the Orioles should still feel good about their young talent base but acknowledged that MacPhail probably was premature when he declared that the team was out of the first phase of the rebuilding project, especially in the rugged AL East.
"I think they're on the right path with the plan of growing their own pitching, and there are some arms in the organization, from Zach Britton to [Jake] Arrieta and [Chris] Tillman," one high-ranking major league executive said. "They show great promise. They just have to be patient. [MacPhail] is trying to be objective in [a] situation that there's not a quick fix for. They're not close to winning. They have to continue the process that they started a couple of years ago."
Having already endured a dozen straight losing seasons, Oriole fans feel they've been patient for long enough, and the discontent with the organization may be at an all-time high. They've already had the two smallest crowds in Camden Yards history this year after a 2009 season in which their home games attracted 1,907,163 fans, the lowest in the stadium's history.