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October 15, 2010
GM for a Day
The Orioles have been rebuilding since 1997, and in that time have run through at least six general managers. I say “at least” because for a time they had a duumvirate running the team, and the only thing we know for sure about the way they split the job is that the Orioles achieved the rare feat of being half as successful with twice the executive manpower. Given that, it’s not completely unrealistic for me to imagine myself as the GM of the Orioles—the man on the street, equipped with a modicum of common sense and education, couldn’t have done much worse than the professionals.
The Orioles had a finish this year that was unique in the annals of baseball history. Since 1900, 342 teams have changed managers at least once at some point during the course of the season. Unsurprisingly, 258 of them had losing records. Of the 258, just 67 teams had a winning record with the second manager. Most of these teams had played too small a fraction of the schedule when they made the change to be truly like the 2010 Orioles. There have been just 16 teams in baseball in a similar position to that of the Orioles in 2010. In this case, “similar position” is defined as having played between 77 (half of the pre-expansion schedule) and 110 games with a losing record, making a managerial change, and posting a winning record under skipper II. For completeness’ sake, I’ve included two teams that were at 111 games when they made their change of managers. Interim managers with an insignificant number of games were ignored. The Orioles’ turnaround under Buck Showalter was by far the most dramatic:
To look at it another way, the pre-Showalter Orioles were playing on a pace to go 49-113. Showalter’s pace was 97-63. The turnaround was so extreme, so miraculous, that my first act as Orioles general manager would be to embrace that old saying, “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see,” and ignore the Showalter turnaround almost completely.
Even if you accept that Showalter’s mystique alone was the cause of the turnaround, when you look for concrete examples of where the effect expressed itself, you find that the major change was in run prevention. The offense was not vastly changed, but the pitchers were transformed:
Did the pitchers just suddenly figure out how to pitch with Showalter around? There is some truth in that given the way they threw more strikes when Showalter was there to glower at them with his baleful countenance. However, the greater effect seems to have been in the way the defense changed at a moment coincidental with Showalter’s arrival. After three months on the disabled list beginning with the fifth game of the season, Brian Roberts reappeared on July 23, nine games before Showalter replaced Juan Samuel. This had the effect of displacing the defensively ineffective Ty Wigginton, Julio Lugo, and Scott Moore and replacing them with a solid glove. On July 29, third baseman Miguel Tejada was dealt to the Padres, and was largely replaced by Josh Bell. While no one has yet suggested that Bell is the new Brooks Robinson on the fielding job, he was a clear improvement over Tejada. These were the only lineup changes of the Showalterian Revolution (hereafter SR), and they had an outsized effect on team defensive efficiency.
Yet, having observed those changes, they seem insufficient to account for the changes the pitchers experienced. In the last weeks of the season, Orioles hurlers enjoyed a dramatic transformation. These caterpillars didn’t turn into butterflies; they turned into the Incredible Hulk:
These changes would seem to be too good to be true, but that’s not necessarily the case. Of the 16 teams above, several were not truly bad teams but simply got off to a bad start in the middle of what was a sustained run of good records. However, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that their in-season turnaround suggested that the club was building toward something. The 1957 Pirates were a few years from a pennant, as were the 1959 and 1966 Reds. And yet, even knowing this the SR should still be ignored, because (A) those teams did not complete the journey without additional intervention, and (B) taking things for granted is always a foolish policy.
Being aware that the dawn could be a false one, “my” Orioles continue to make aggressive changes. With a good deal of young pitching either in the majors or on the way (Zach Britton gives the team one more promising young gun), this winter should be focused on the pursuit of improvements at first base (Wigginton is a free agent and a better sub than starter), shortstop (Cesar Izturis is also a free agent, and though a decent fielder, could not reach base if it was wheeled up to him on a dessert cart), and perhaps third base (Bell’s declining plate judgment is a truly frightening thing) and left field (Felix Pie is a tease, Nolan Reimold makes Pat Burrell look like Paul Blair). In-house options are few—while Manuel Machado had a nice pro debut, he’s 17 and it was all of nine games, so it’s not like he’s going to be making anyone forget Cal Ripken anytime soon.
Fortunately, the O’s do have a couple of players they should consider trading. Right-hander Jeremy Guthrie had a solid season, but he turns 32 in April, is about to get a raise through arbitration, and most importantly, isn’t actually as good as his 3.83 ERA would suggest. Bad teams pay big salaries to defense-dependent pitchers entering baseball middle age. Exploring the possibility that a contender might be more willing to absorb Guthrie’s inevitable raise in order to have a reliable hand at the back of the rotation is job one, because the risk of reversion is just too great and there are younger, livelier options on hand.
Designated hitter/outfielder/first baseman Luke Scott has also got to be dangled. Another player due a raise through arbitration, Scott was by far the best hitter on the Orioles this year. He’s also going to turn 33 in June, so time is wasting—he was far more value to a win-now team than to the Orioles. Neither Scott nor Guthrie should be dealt lightly, but if either can bring in even decent young position player, I’m making the move. One of the problems the Orioles have had is that in holding too tightly to their vets is that by the time it has become apparent that the players have aged out of usefulness in Baltimore, they no longer have value to other teams. In a very short time, this will be true of Guthrie and Scott. Branch Rickey was never more right than when he said that it is better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late.
These moves (hopefully) made, I’ll patch with free agents, leaning toward players whose gloves can help ease the young starters into the majors, as Roberts and Bell did in August and September. At the same time, I would stay away from the top of the market, because we’re not ready to start adding final pieces; dismissing the SR means understanding that this rebuilding will be an incremental process. Lyle Overbay is a mediocrity on a contender, but his defense is strong and his bat would be an Orioles-specific upgrade given that Baltimore first-sackers hit .226/.289/.336. Shortstop is going to be a difficult spot to upgrade, but if the Twins non-tender J.J. Hardy, as has been suggested, I’d jump on him.
One older player free agent I might want to re-sign is Koji Uehara. The right-hander may be going on 36, but he did a fine job of closing in the second half, and one of the most demoralizing aspects of the Orioles’ 2010 was their inability to finish games. While I would not invest in free agent relievers, believing that to be largely a sucker’s game, I would retain Uehara until midseason, hoping in the meantime that a suitable alternative presented itself from pitchers already on hand.
My Orioles aren’t going to win anything, but then, neither will Andy MacPhail’s Orioles, not in this division, not with so much more work to do. What my Orioles will do is continue to stay young, aggressively exploit any opportunity to deal middle-aged players for more promising youngsters, and continue the process of getting the young pitchers established in the majors. Having done that, having shown real, sustained progress toward .500, I’d ask Peter Angelos to open up his wallet and buy the team the superman that is not presently in the system—but not a moment before.