Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail wanted to make a larger point about risk and about baseball's financial imbalance Thursday during a question-and-answer session with a group of Baltimore School of Law students. So at one point, after taking questions for more than 40 minutes, MacPhail decided to throw out a query of his own.
"Who is the worst free agent signing in baseball history?" MacPhail asked. "I invite all of you to think about this for two minutes."
The answers shouted back at MacPhail were varied. Albert Belle. Mike Hampton. Darren Dreifort. Even Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who has yet to play a game with his new team, earned a vote.
Only one student came up with the answer MacPhail was looking for — Alex Rodriguez — and it says a lot about MacPhail's management philosophy as he tries to rebuild the Orioles, who have suffered through 13 consecutive losing seasons.
"Alex Rodriguez to Texas was the worst signing in the history of baseball in my view," MacPhail said. "Why? Because he played as well as you can possibly ask the kid to play. He had great years. And the needle didn't move at all. ... The team didn't improve. Attendance didn't go up. But hey, they got the lead story on ESPN. Well, if that's what motivates you, you're going down the wrong path. You want to put 35,000 people in the ballpark, win the games. That's what [fans] are there to see. That's what the Orioles need — to win some games."
MacPhail was speaking as a part of the University of Baltimore Law School's third annual Pro Sports Symposium, which invited various guests to talk about legal, financial and management issues in sports. Dennis Curran, senior vice president and general counsel for the NFL, and well as Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the NFL Players Association — along with two midlevel NBA executives and Tennessee Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon — also answered questions for aspiring lawyers.
But MacPhail's hourlong session was by far the most compelling of the symposium, in part because MacPhail was fairly candid about his management philosophy. He said it was obvious the Orioles cannot financially compete with the Yankees, especially when the Yankees charge 10 times as much for season tickets and draw revenue from a TV network that's worth more, on its own, than most franchises. Because of that, MacPhail's focus has been figuring out a way to improve the Orioles by boosting the team's amateur scouting, opening a new spring training facility and signing hitters, not pitchers, in free agency.
The majority of it was nothing die-hard Orioles fans haven't heard MacPhail say previously, but he did offer deeper insight into why the team doesn't try to make big, splashy moves — unless a "perfect storm" exists the way it did with Mark Teixeira, to whom the Orioles offered a $144 million deal.
Don’t expect a big free-agent signing anytime soon
For instance, if you're holding out hope that the Orioles will ever try to sign a No. 1 starter, don't hold your breath. They won't be going after Albert Pujols either, he added.
"We have to spend our money where we're on equal footing," MacPhail said. "And we have to be efficient with it. Our fans have heard me drone on about growing the arms and buying the bats. Why do we say that? Is it a tactical thing? No, in my view, it's a practical thing. We're not going to be buying No. 1 pitchers. Because by the time they reach free agency, they're expensive and they're fragile. It's just a bad place for us to spend our money."
Obviously, the Orioles still need pitching to win, but it's going to have to be pitching that comes from within the organization. MacPhail said that since 2007, no team in the American League East has spent more money on signing bonuses than the Orioles. And the main focus, outside of shortstop Manny Machado, has been pitching, pitching, pitching.
"To me, this is where we have to use our resources," he said. "That's an area we can compete. We can't compete if it comes down to who is going to sign Cliff Lee. Our pitchers absolutely have to come from within."
MacPhail said that while it may frustrate fans, patience and long-term planning are the only approach he thinks will work.
"You have to stay the course," MacPhail said. "And things will get tough. Last year we started 2-16. If it gets any tougher than that, I don't want to know about it. But you have to have some conviction. Given the economics of it, it's the only approach. It's not just the right approach, it's the only approach. We have to stick with it."
But are the Orioles making any real progress?