It should be with some strangely mixed feelings that Orioles fans bid farewell to departing president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail this week. It's not often that you get to combine gratitude with near-total frustration.
MacPhail arrived here 51 months ago to fix an organization that had wandered so far from the old Oriole Way that half its fan base had wandered away with it. He inherited a team mired in a string of nine straight losing seasons, a team so deeply dysfunctional that it had spent nearly two decades in the futile pursuit of something as simple as an adequate spring training facility.
He leaves a team mired in a string of 14 straight losing seasons and still facing a very uncertain future, which is why the Orioles barely avoided setting the latest in a series of dubious single-season attendance records.
So, why should anyone be grateful?
Because there is way more to this picture than meets the standings, even if it's fair for fans to look at the bottom line and shake their heads in disgust. MacPhail arrived with enough credibility — two world titles with the small-market Minnesota Twins, a pre-existing working relationship with owner Peter Angelos — to make serious changes in the way the Orioles did business and put a more professional face on the organization.
This is not a slam on anybody who preceded him. It's just a fact that he had more juice in the Law Office than anyone who had come before him, which made it easier for him to get some very important things done.
The spring training situation stands out, even though the heavy lifting on that wonderfully renovated facility in Sarasota, Fla., was done at the ownership level. MacPhail finally brought home the realization that there is a right and a wrong way to do things — rather than just the Angelos way — and got the franchise at least pointed in the right direction.
The easiest thing to do at this point would be to focus on the things MacPhail didn't accomplish. The Orioles might have had an eye-popping final series against the tail-spinning Boston Red Sox, but they still won just 69 games and never won more than that in the five seasons that MacPhail was in charge of baseball ops.
If you want to take that a step further, you can point out that the Orioles won more games (70) in the last full season before he arrived than in any under his leadership. Fair enough.
But it should be pretty obvious that "The Plan" — even as it fell far short of making the Orioles competitive this year in the American League East — leaves the franchise in better shape than it was in June 2007.
MacPhail, you might recall, arrived at a time when the Orioles were deeply embroiled in baseball's steroid scandal. He got five players from the Houston Astros for shortstop Miguel Tejada the day before Tejada was named in the Mitchell Report. He also got five players — including 2011 Most Valuable Oriole Adam Jones — from the Seattle Mariners for oft-injured left-hander Erik Bedard, reseeding a depleted player-development system.
Though the franchise continues to have serious player-development issues, it still had enough young talent to enable MacPhail to pull off another terrific coup, getting 30-homer shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Minnesota Twins for two minor leaguers, then signing him to a multiyear contract extension.
It's hard to argue with MacPhail's trade acumen. The most disputable of his big trades was the one that sent promising pitcher David Hernandez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for slugger Mark Reynolds, and Reynolds led the Orioles in home runs and RBIs. It's probably too soon to evaluate his last significant deal, which brought the Orioles starting pitcher Tommy Hunter and infielder Chris Davis for outstanding setup reliever Koji Uehara, but it looks pretty good from here.
So, why wasn't all that reflected in the standings? There are all sorts of reasons — from more bad luck in player development (which might not really be luck) to MacPhail's inability to sign the key free agents who might have propelled the club forward — but what difference does any of that really make? The bottom line is the bottom line, and the fans have every right to consider the past five seasons another bitter chunk of the same bad meal.
Now, it falls to Buck Showalter and a new front office hierarchy to try to take the Orioles to the next level, and to do that, Showalter or his hand-picked general manager will need the freedom and resources to turn over a significant segment of the 40-man roster before next spring.
The fans can only hope the surprising final weeks of the 2011 season were a sign of better things to come, though we've been down that road before. There's no question that the Orioles' organization is better off — top to bottom — than it was when MacPhail came to town, but that's very small consolation 14 years removed from the team's last winning season.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.