The praise, almost universal, always comes with a disclaimer. Scouts love the Baltimore Orioles. They want to peg them as baseball's great darkhorse of 2010, the latest team that can turn homegrown talent into long-term success. Only the scouts won't go so far, not without a seven-word postscript.
If only they weren't in that division.
Such is life in the American League East, baseball's iron maiden, where even the most well-run upstart finds itself trapped underneath the enormity of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Orioles have spent a dozen miserable seasons thrashing about, the vortex of mismanagement sucking the life out of what once stood as a model franchise. And only now, under general manager Andy MacPhail's stewardship, is the cannonball hole in the bow fixed and the ship ready for righting.
MacPhail is 56, long removed from his days as the wunderkind GM of the 1987 and '91 World Series champions in Minnesota, and this is far and away the starkest reclamation project of his career. He is constantly fighting: the expectations of a disgruntled fan base, the realities of winning with a team in the bottom third of revenues and, most of all, the perception that the Orioles cannot compete with the pair of behemoths at whom they stare up in the standings year after year.
"The game has morphed," MacPhail said. "The teams in our division have morphed. You've got teams with incredible revenue and payrolls, and we just can't support what they do. So we have to be better at what we do."
Which is, in MacPhail's two-plus years with the Orioles, identifying and stockpiling young, cheap talent. The amount of potential on Baltimore's 40-man roster is frightening, even to the Yankees and Red Sox. Right fielder Nick Markakis(notes), already a star, is 26 and the oldest of Baltimore's new guard. Center fielder Adam Jones(notes), 24, made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove, and Nolan Reimold(notes) (26) and Felix Pie(notes) (24) turned in promising seasons. Catcher Matt Wieters(notes), the most talented of the bunch, is 23.
"Kids have enough pressure on them, and everything on Wieters was out of control," MacPhail said. "I try not to get into the hype stuff."
It's tough not to succumb. Left-hander Brian Matusz(notes) (22) and right-hander Chris Tillman(notes) (21) expect to anchor the rotation for at least six years, and Jake Arrieta – a 23-year-old one scout compared to Phil Hughes(notes) – Brandon Erbe (22) and Troy Patton(notes) (24) await in the high minor leagues. Can't forget Brad Bergesen(notes) (3.43 ERA as a 23-year-old) and David Hernandez(notes), either.
It's a remarkable collection of talent, and yet it's not enough because of the collective might of New York and Boston, plus Tampa Bay itself boasting a cache of kids to rival the Orioles'. Less than a year onto the job, MacPhail pulled off one of the decade's best deals when he shipped Erik Bedard(notes) to Seattle for Jones, Tillman, reliever Kam Mickolio(notes) and reliever George Sherrill(notes), who last year he spun to the Dodgers for top third base prospect Josh Bell. It was the best deal made by a MacPhail since Andy's father, Lee, brought Baltimore its first championshp by stealing Frank Robinson from Cincinnati 44 years ago.
These Orioles needed more than one savvy maneuver. Owner Peter Angelos, a micromanager extraordinaire, ceded all baseball operations to MacPhail. Attempts to rebuild through free agency crashed and burned with such force that MacPhail demanded total control before taking the job.
He remembers Baltimore in the 1990s. Camden Yards opened in 1992, and the Orioles contended every season. The 1997 team won 98 games and the East. In 1998, Baltimore outspent the Yankees with a $70.4 million payroll – no one has done so since – and finished under .500. The Orioles haven't eclipsed the mark since, and attendance dwindled from 3,711,132 that season to 1,907,163 last year.
"We have work to do to get fans back," MacPhail said, "and we do that by winning games."
Last year, the Orioles won 64. MacPhail hopes a full year for Wieters, Matusz and Tillman will help them grow into stars, and that Jones and Reimold can stay healthy, and that the trade for Kevin Millwood(notes) will anchor the rotation, and that free agent signing Garrett Atkins(notes) can rediscover his bat, and that manager Dave Trembley can transition from nurturer to winner, and that the $12 million shelled out for closer Mike Gonzalez(notes) isn't for naught.
"I've never believed a closer is a luxury," MacPhail said. "I know that's the conventional wisdom among a lot of people, but those aren't people who have to watch your team play 162 times. You need to win the games you're supposed to win for the sake of your players, your fans, your franchise.
"It's important for morale. There's nothing more debilitating for your players than looking around in the seventh inning and wondering how you're going to blow this game."
Such thinking is a disease, and one that's highly communicable among losing franchises. The Orioles missed out on Mark Teixeira(notes) – "We were legit on that," MacPhail said – not because they refused to pony up the necessary dollars but because Baltimore's reputation preemptively killed the franchise's chance.
That is changing. Gonzalez and Atkins each chose Baltimore over other offers, and the Orioles expect to sign another corner infielder and "some sort of pitching help," MacPhail said. Their payroll will remain around $80 million, more suited for the AL Central than AL East.
MacPhail deals accordingly. His days in the office bleed into nights, one meeting after another in search of a competitive advantage. No sense in complaining. He took this job well aware that life in the AL East is cutthroat, brutal, damn near impossible. He took it because of that. And soon enough, he hopes, scouts will trot out a new seven-word axiom.
It doesn't matter what division they're in.