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March 29, 2002

6-4-3

Road Map

by Gary Huckabay

I was going to write a column this week that summarized some of the stuff from the NorCal Pizza Feeds. Actually, I finished the column, had it ready to go, and was planning to send it to Joe for editing Thursday morning. Then, after checking out the local papers for a few clubs, I ran across a piece at the Baltimore Sun Web site, read through it, then spent two hours on an exercise bike and at the driving range to try to calm down. It hasn't worked, so I want to run through this piece, and begin to scratch the surface of what's wrong in Baltimore.

All the quoted text in this piece is from "Puzzle Pieces Fit for Orioles" by Joe Christensen & Baltimore Sun Staff, published on March 27, 2002 at the Baltimore Sun Web site.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - They came here with questions about their leadoff hitter, questions about their pitching ace and questions about their identity.

The Orioles will start making their way north today with answers to those questions and several more.

They'll head to Viera for two exhibition games with the Florida Marlins, feeling second baseman Jerry Hairston is suited for the leadoff role because his on-base average this spring is .425.

Then, they'll play their final exhibition game--Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds in Louisville, Ky.--knowing this is a team that could succeed in the post-Cal Ripken era, even after losing 98 games last season.

Wow. Where to begin.

I know that this information has been filtered through a guy that depends on the good grace of the Orioles front office and players for the access he needs to do his job. But I'd like to believe that either he or his contacts with the Orioles would know better than to think Jerry Hairston is a good leadoff hitter based on 62 spring at-bats, when his career OBP, in nearly 1,000 plate appearances, is .316.

"Coming in after last year, I didn't think too highly of us," Orioles designated hitter David Segui said. "I thought we stunk. They added some pieces to the puzzle, and with the philosophy they're pushing--being aggressive, taking it to the other team--it's really worked."

It's probably not fair to really evaluate spring-training pablum, but be serious. Is David Segui or anyone else seriously implying that last year the Orioles were simply not trying on the field, and that this year they're going to? If that's true, the management and players of the Orioles did a miserable job of motivation and preparation last year. It's the same management in place this year, surrounded pretty much by the same players. It doesn't matter if it was a lack of talent or motivation last year that caused the Orioles' woes if little has changed.

They've seen flashbacks to last season, as Segui aggravated the same Achilles' injury as [Chris] Singleton on the same night. After having Segui for just 82 games a year ago, the Orioles continue to hold their breath about his durability.

Even when the injuries have come, the Orioles have looked a little less flustered. Some of the young players they rushed to the big leagues last season--Larry Bigbie, Rick Bauer, Sean Douglass and Brian Roberts--look more ready in case the same problems arise.

Larry Bigbie is a 24-year old outfielder. His best season to date was last year, when he hit .294/.386/.476 at Double-A Bowie before looking overmatched in the majors. If things break right for him, he can have a good career as an extra outfielder.

Rick Bauer is a 25-year-old soft-tossing right hander, and his performance in the minors can best be described as "pedestrian." His strikeout rates have been average to slightly above, and there's absolutely nothing in his record to indicate that he's likely to enjoy future success in the majors.

Sean Douglass is probably one of the Orioles' better pitching "prospects," in that he can reach 90 on the radar gun, and there's a combination of youth, control, and strikeout rate that holds at least some promise, but by no means is he likely to be a pitcher that pushes a club towards a championship.

Brian Roberts is a speedy middle infielder who draws some walks. He's 24, was overmatched (not surprisingly) in the majors last year, and has hit a grand total of 57 extra base hits in 874 professional at-bats. He could have a reasonable career, but again, not exactly someone on whom to bet the future of the franchise.

None of that's really the point. The scary part is that either this writer, the Oriole front office, or both, seriously believes that the injuries to Segui and Mike Bordick are what held the Orioles back last year. If everything breaks right for those two, they can be league average contributors for their positions. Maybe.

The Orioles have seen owner Peter Angelos make a commitment to the future, locking up two thirtysomethings, Buddy Groom and Jeff Conine, to two-year contract extensions. Groom is considered the bullpen leader, and Conine's position in Ripken's old clubhouse locker didn't just happen by coincidence.

Buddy Groom, as you may know, is a rubber-armed left-handed bullpen guy. He turns 37 this season. If you can't have Buddy Groom, you can dig up Kevin Lovingier for the league minimum and not take a huge performance hit.

Jeff Conine turns 36 this season, and just finished his first season with an OBP above .341 since 1996. He plays corner infield and outfield positions acceptably, and hits left-handers fairly well. There's not a huge difference between Conine and say, Greg Colbrunn, except that Colbrunn is better, younger, and costs less.

The idea that either of these players should be on a team that's basically a complete teardown should be an embarrassment to the Oriole front office. What purpose do they serve? Is the Oriole marketing plan contingent on having a couple of reliable quote machines? I understand and agree that veterans who might not be the optimal solution have a role on a club, but not for that kind of money. Groom is guaranteed $6.25 million for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, or $9 million through the 2005 season. Conine's guaranteed cash? $3.5 million for 2002 and $9.25 million minimum for 2003 and 2004, with a club option for his age 39 season in 2005.

Smooth.

Is that really indicative of a "commitment to the future?" Save the money and use it for players or program development that will actually contribute to a winning baseball team.

Quietly, players say there is an overall unity in the clubhouse that didn't exist last year. This group may be relatively anonymous, but at least they all get along.

In all seriousness -- who cares? "Hey, the team's on pace to win 73 games, but I'm gonna head out to the ballpark anyway, because I know that the guys in the clubhouse get along well together." - J. S. Mill, Oriole Fan.

The causal arrow in the clubhouse doesn't necessarily begin with great chemistry and flow towards winning. We'd all love to work with people we cherish as human beings, but success is pretty good at bringing disparate people together. And, to quote Reggie, "Chemistry in the clubhouse? Go f--- yourself."

Angelos went on record saying he expects at least a .500 season, and not a single player blinked.

There's probably a reason for that. The players were either experiencing collective apoplexy, and had distended, bulging, deer-in-the-headlights eyes, or they figured Angelos was talking about the AL as a whole, which will probably be within a few games either way of .500 for the season.

The Baltimore Orioles are completely adrift, both in the front office and on the field. There's no capability to play quality baseball on the field, and there's no evidence that suggests that the front office is even aware of this. The Orioles' personnel moves appear to have no rhyme or reason to them whatsoever. Players are signed, traded, optioned, released, and played without any apparent idea of what value they contribute, either to the current incarnation of the Orioles, or to the next Oriole team that's going to contend for anything except the first selection in the draft.

The Orioles need a plan that makes sense, and they need to execute it well. In order to make a plan for any organization, you need to take an objective look at it and figure out, as best you can, your current state. For an MLB club, that means all parts of the organization, from the major-league roster to the baseball operations and scouting staffs, as well as the marketing teams, finance, upper management, stadium operations...everything. This current-state assessment is essential to creating a plan that can actually be executed. Once you have that, and a clear set of goals, you can build the capabilities in the organization, and move towards those goals.

Let's examine just two components of the Oriole organization; the major-league roster, and the top prospects in the minor-league pipeline.

The Opening Day 25-man roster is likely to be some melange of these players:


SP Jason Johnson                C  Fernando Lunar/Brook Fordyce/Geronimo Gil
SP Sidney Ponson                1B Jeff Conine
SP Scott Erickson               2B Jerry Hairston
SP Josh Towers                  3B Tony Batista
SP Calvin Maduro                SS Mike Bordick/Brian Roberts
                                OF Marty Cordova/Melvin Mora
RP Willis Roberts               OF Chris Singleton/Larry Bigbie
RP Buddy Groom                  OF Jay Gibbons/Ryan McGuire
RP Jorge Julio                  DH David Segui
RP B.J. Ryan
RP Chris Brock
RP John Bale

In doing a serious assessment, we'd want to include expected performance levels for each of these players, and do so relative to players on other teams. (e.g., removing park and league effects) I won't do that in this space, primarily because you know the way it breaks down: not well for the Orioles. Reasonable expectations for the pitching staff, even if Scott Erickson is healthy, aren't particularly good. The offense is short on youth, potential, and on-base percentage.

This is a major-league roster that does not compare favorably to the average roster in the league. Given that, expecting a .500 season is unrealistic.

How about the minor leagues? Any help on the way there?

Actually, there might be a little. Taking a look at John Sickels's always excellent Minor League Scouting Notebook, several Oriole farmhands rate as B- or better prospects:


Brian Bass, SS        B-
Steve Bechler, RHP    B-
Erik Bedard, LHP      B
Mike Fontenot, 2B     B
Cory Morris, RHP      B
Chris Smith, LHP      B-
John Stephens, RHP    B-
Matt Riley, LHP       B (This is my call, not Sickels's, and I'm an optimist.)

The system is certainly not a strength relative to organizations (check out the book for more information). What are the implications? Few hitters, no outfielders, and no blue-chip prospects. Is something wrong with the player-development system? What? How can it be fixed? Who in MLB is doing this well? What are they doing that the Orioles are not? Do they have a pattern of drafting particular guys? Does it work? Are they using the Major League Scouting Bureau reports too heavily? Not heavily enough? Do their scouts have a bias that's causing them to overvalue particular players? Are they even measuring their results, so they know whether they're doing well or poorly? What are they doing well?

Obviously, this is simplified eight ways from Sunday, but this isn't a treatise on strategic planning. It's very painful to watch a once-proud organization like the Orioles turn into a complete wasteland of bad decision making and fear. They clung to Cal Ripken as a marketing tool for far too long, and didn't pay adequate attention to what they'd need to be a successful club going forward.

Success can be very dangerous. If the stands are full and the team is making money, it's easy to assume that things are going well, and things will continue to go well. Failures can be blamed on freak incidents, such as the unfortunate injury to Albert Belle, but that's not really the problem here. The problem is that the Oriole organization has no plan, no idea that they need one, and they're terrified of taking an objective look at their organization.

Peter Angelos, Syd Thrift, and company can no longer afford to merely throw away opportunities like Calvin Pickering and Jayson Werth, no matter how they eventually end up. The patchwork signings of mediocre, expensive veterans (Conine, Groom, Erickson, Pat Hentgen, Marty Cordova) has to stop. It serves no purpose, it's expensive, and it leads to more bad decisions when you can't admit your past mistakes.

A plan. A goal. Milestones. Measurement. Action. Then, a contending team.

Not before.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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