Thursday, September 29, 2011

2011 Orioles: Grand Finale Masks a Season of Cruel Reality's Truimph Over Glimmers of Preseason Hope

The arch-rival Red Sox only need three outs in the ninth. Their accomplished closer, Jonathan Papelbon who’d proven to be almost a sure thing to secure the close, took the mound. The Orioles had the bottom of their order coming to the plate, with two out, all that remained was fill-in second baseman, Robert Andino, and the Sox would secure their expected playoff berth. Andino’s hit secured by a smoking hot double to the wall by left-fielder, Nolan Reimold, deep down the depth chart and playing in Norfolk on Opening Day paced the Orioles to a dramatic walk off win, and the Red Sox complete another historic choke – put Nolan Reimold in the book of Boston curses along with Bucky Dent.

This kind of bold ending would have been the perfect end to the Orioles’ 2011 season especially given the expectations behind this team in April, but in truth as the team celebrated as if they were a team play-off bound being the one team with the greatest claims to destroying the 2011 Red Sox, it was but a rare up moment in a season that had to provide a brutal reality check for a team that has not had a winning season since 1997, and saw one of their most beloved long-time members of the organization, MASN broadcaster, former Cy Young and World Champion Orioles pitcher, and head of baseball operations when the Rafael Palmeiro rocked perhaps the most competitive season the Orioles was found dead on his Sparks, Maryland farm from a self-inflicted shotgun blast. There was no escaping the realization that for a man who had been a loyal part of the Orioles organization as a player and after retirement his personal unraveling was strongly influenced by the team’s futility and his inability to help right the team he dearly loved though emerging star catcher, Matt Wieters, was his draft pick. This was the year his front office successor, Andy McPhail, a man with exemplary baseball pedigree and a history of building winners, was supposed to have had the results of his leadership show tangible results, but the 2011 season will be far more remembered for what happened in July than a triumphant finale at the end of September.

Baltimore baseball fans couldn’t help but feeling good to see the Orioles sweep the Red Sox four games in Boston last week and then beat them 2 out of three at home to close the season eliminating the Red Sox bid for the last American League playoff slot. For Orioles’ fans it’s always sweet to beat the Red Sox or Yankees who seem to take deed of the stadium every tie they come to Camden Yard overwhelming the locals with New York tough or Massachusetts arrogance as if Oriole Park were an annex to Yankee Stadium or Fenway park.  The Orioles played well in September winning 15 games and losing 13 games. That’s where the cheering ends. They finished the season at 69-93 making it six consecutive years with finishes of 92 or more losses and their fourteenth consecutive losing season.

When the joys of ousting Boston subside and the 2011 is seen in its totality, for those expecting a move toward respectability after their superb performance after Buck Showalter’s hiring as manager winning the most games in the American league during the last two weeks of the season, it looked like after heading for historic calamity early in the season under Dave Trembley’s ineffective stewardship, the rebuilding of the Orioles started in earnest midway through the 2007 season was paying off. With Matt Wieters developing into a top catcher, Adam Jones becoming a team leader in center field, and ever dependable, Nick Markakis in right field supplemented with perennial top performer, Brian Roberts returning from injury, the Orioles were starting to have what would look like a dependable nucleus on offense from players who excelled in the field. The young pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, and Chris Tillman showed improvement down the stretch suggesting that they were nearing at least quality starter material for the following year.

The vision of a winning team in Baltimore, once such a proud and lively baseball team, was starting to come into focus. Andy McPhail’s strategy was to grow pitching and buy bats. To that end, McPhail signed for free agents and made trades giving up no prominent players to obtain Mark Reynolds, a free swinging power hitting 3rd baseman; Derrek Lee, a well-rounded superb fielding veteran 1st baseman who had a substandard 2009 season with a hand injury; J.J. Hardy, a fine fielding shortstop with a strong bat and some power, and Vladmir Guerrero, a veteran superb hitter whose power numbers were showing some decline down the stretch in Texas. Luke Scott then would patrol left field giving what could be a strong lineup top to bottom ready to take on the AL East bullies.  Kevin Gregg signed as closer.

With all this promise it didn’t take long; however, for the Orioles to show too many familiar old problems. Unlike the disastrous beginning in 2010, the Orioles weren’t blown out early. In fact, they were only down one game for April at 12-13, but in May, a seven game stretch losing six out of seven games widened the win/loss differential but still they weren’t out of the picture at the end of May. Their May 16th loss to Boston might very well be the epitaph on the 2011 season. What appeared to be of no major consequence, Brian Roberts shaken up by a head first slide into first base where he finished the game resulted his loss for the season with a concussion and related head wound trauma. Closer Kevin Gregg blew the save and lost the game. A four game losing streak in June pushed the differential wider apart with the month finishing with a three game losing streak to the St. Louis Cardinals at Camden Yards made the visions of hope at the start of the season start to look like another ill-fated scheme, but the losing at the end of June continued into an all out collapse before the All-Star break winning only one game in July before the break, taking a nine game losing streak into midseason. Only a mad idealist would see the 2011 team as not being the 14th consecutive loser.

The pitching fell apart with starters giving up big leads early and the bullpen being over taxed. After the break they’d go six and eleven and find themselves 21 games under .500. Grumbling of a possible 100 loss season started to become all too real. The Orioles were heading for a worse season than 2010. The promise of the future, the young starters were in Norfolk, Bowie, or on the disabled list more than they were in Baltimore. August started out just as horribly, 5-14 up to August 22 when they began a six game winning streak starting with six game winning streak, four against the Twins and two against the Yankees. No one would see a good September in the works losing five out of six before winning three games September 7-9th which only gave way to three more losses. Some September, eh?

By now, the team on the field aside from the most obvious names, looked more like the Norfolk Tides than the Baltimore Orioles, but the only team in the remaining season would all be contenders except Toronto. Not only did they help knock the Angels out of contention for the AL West, but the Orioles finished with seven out of eleven games against the Boston Red Sox. They won six and lost one pushing the Sox out of what looked like a sure Wild Card berth.

By now Baltimore’s moved on. The Grand Prix racing in Baltimore over Labor Day weekend gave Baltimore fans an entirely new kind of live sports to fall in love with while the Ravens played brilliantly in two out of their first three games. “The Orioles, oh yeah, them, they suck. What else is new?”

So what to do for next year?  There simply cannot be the optimism for the 2012 team there was for 2011, and where does the team go?  Would it even be feasible to enter into the Prince Fielder sweepstakes to add a power hitter who’d be spraying homeruns out of cozy Camden Yards? Would a player of his value sign for a team that hasn’t had anything important to show since 1997?

The team can pencil in J.J. Hardy at shortstop, Brad Wieters behind the plate, Adam Jones in center field, and Nick Markakis in right field. Is Brian Roberts still a possibility? If he could return to his level of play through the 2009 season or how he played once healthy last year, that would be a huge relief?  Mark Reynolds might be a keeper for his nasty homerun bat, but he’s a terrible third baseman and they’d be likely to add a first baseman. Left field, Luke Scott would likely be the starter but his fielding is horrible, and for a streaky hitter coming off of surgery, what’s his value to the team. The corner infield, left field, and possibly 2nd base are all questions.

The starting pitching is so full of questions with Jake Arietta if heeled looking like a young starter on the move. Zach Britton is getting better, but Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman are hugely unpredictable. What to do with the bullpen? Jim Johnson looks strong in any position. Do they really want Kevin Gregg’s self-destruction grabbing losses out of should be wins?

Andy McPhail came to Baltimore with credentials of being a solid GM building two World champs in Minnesota, and helping the Chicago Cubs become contenders amidst shaky ownership. However, his tenure in Baltimore starting in mid 2007 inheriting a team with dreadful expectations winning 40 and losing 53 under his time on the job does not spell success.  Since then the records are as follows:

2008: W-68, L-93
2009: W-64, L-98
2010: W-66, L-96
2011: W 69, L-93

So where’s the improvement?  The Orioles have finally found a state of the art, modern spring training facility in Sarasota, and minor league operations have been streamlined and more tightly supervised with almost all minor league teams in close orbit to Baltimore:  Tides, AAA, Norfolk, VA; Bay Sox, AA, Bowie, MD; Keys, Advanced A, Frederick, MD; Shorebirds, A, Salisbury, MD; and Ironbirds, short season A, Aberdeen, MD. With a stronger infrastructure though, the Orioles are not loaded with can’t miss talent in the minors spare shortstop Manny Machado who is moving right up the levels perhaps ready for Baltimore in 2013.

Some wonder if McPhail, whose contract expires this winter, will remain with the organization. On the criteria fans recognize, his tenure is not successful, while close observers most concede the overall health of the organization was far worse than realized when he joined the club.

What makes the 2011 season hurt so badly for serious fans. This was the year where winning was to be in reach and the move toward being a contender would take off from there. Can anyone look at how the 2011 season played out and see a winning team in the near future much less articulate a clear formula that could see the once proud franchise become a winner again in the toughest division in baseball. To even suggest there might be good signs for 2014 would have to be based on something that’s in the early stages of development now. Who can point out those potential players or resources that will make that so?

Here comes the hot stove season. Fans will be absorbed in the Ravens and if the Ravens play according to plan should be around in post season play until just before pitchers and catchers report.

We await to hear the team’s assessment, but the Baltimore Orioles are firmly established as one of pro sports’ most perennial losers with their great legacy becoming more and more a treasure of generations gone by.

The post season begins with a hollow, empty feeling. Where are the seeds of hope?

A generation of young Baltimore sports fans have never known what used to be such a joyful certainty, winning baseball in Baltimore.

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