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June 10, 2008

Prospectus Today

The State of the Orioles

by Joe Sheehan

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The Internet is a funny place.

Last month, I wrote an Unfiltered post that was almost entirely about Barry Bonds, the gap between the perception of his skills and the reality, and how the discussion of those skills has been completely warped in the mainstream press. The article was inspired by a Peter Schmuck column dismissing the possibility of collusion against Bonds. The following were the last few paragraphs of the piece:

Schmuck trots out cliched imagery to state that Bonds wouldn't fit with the Orioles:

"If that isn't convincing enough, imagine how Bonds' La-Z-Boy recliner and personal big-screen TV would play with manager Dave Trembley, who has built this year's good chemistry on the notion that everybody is equal in the Orioles' clubhouse."

Well, Dave Trembley has a career mark of 59-71, the Orioles have been outscored and have a going-nowhere roster full of overpaid thirtysomethings for something like the ninth year in a row. I'm sure everybody is equal in the Orioles' clubhouse, because there's not a single player good enough to stand out from the crowd. If the 2008 Orioles are supposed to be the product of good chemistry, then good chemistry isn't worth the electrons on this page.

The piece went over fairly well, with about a 4:1 positive reaction in my inbox. It's fair to say at this point that if you read BP, you know where I stand on Bonds, but I felt like it was important to make the argument again, and make it in the "free" portion of the site.

Ten days went by, and suddenly, I started getting a flood of angry e-mail from Orioles fans.

Subject: you are a knucklehead
From: A.J.

The last time I looked, the Orioles and Dave Trembley were respectable this year. You and your lame ass article that I could not even follow on the other hand are not respectable at all. I am probably one of three people that read this crap of an article. good luck on youre lame career.

Subject: The O's
From: K.P.

Forget you, dumb ass. Have you watched the O's lately? The O's rock, the Spankmees suck, and Bary Bonds has no place in baseball. You suck.

…and so on.

I honestly had no idea where this was coming from. I couldn't figure out how a throwaway line at the end of a week-old Unfiltered post was generating as much e-mail as that day's column. As it turns out, the piece had been discovered and linked that day in at least two places: Orioles Hangout and Roch Kubatko's Baltimore Sun blog. Orioles fans in both places mostly took offense, and that's how I ended up with a couple hundred e-mails about the Orioles on a random Wednesday in May.

Now, the above examples aside, many Orioles fans made arguments in favor of their boys, loosely characterized into three groups:

  1. What about Nick Markakis?
  2. This isn't an old team any more.
  3. We have CHEMISTRY!

To the first, I have no defense. Nick Markakis is a terrific baseball player, the best on the team by a considerable amount, and puts the lie to my "not a single player good enough to stand out from the crowd" line. I was wrong to forget him.

To the last, well, chemistry is a made-up concept used to make bad teams feel better about themselves in March and explain away overperformance or underperformance in August by people who are frightened by math. As much as players and managers and GMs and beat writers love, love, love to talk about the importance of chemistry, talent is what matters. Talent drives winning or losing, and whatever chemistry is, it trails in the wake of results. It's an effect, not a cause.

And as to the second objection…here's a list.

30
24
36
31
36
22
30
32
35
24

That's the top 10 for the Orioles in plate appearances, by age. Markakis is the first 24-year-old, Adam Jones is 22, and Luis Hernandez--who isn't remotely a major leaguer--is the other 24 in the last slot. (Freddie Bynum, 28, will pass him this week.)

Seven of the Orioles top nine players by playing time are thirtysomethings (by baseball age, that is: age as of July 1). Of those, Brian Roberts is, and Luke Scott might be, worth the money. The rest of the lineup is old and bad. The Orioles' pitching staff is a bit younger than the lineup, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of long-term contributors there. Jeremy Guthrie is 29 and might be a #3 starter. Daniel Cabrera's rates have been going backwards for two years. Both pitchers' ERAs have nowhere to go but up. Garrett Olson, quoting Kevin Goldstein here, is a "back of the rotation left-hander."

Let's cut to the chase. Among current Orioles, Markakis, Jones and Radhames Liz should be regulars when this team is good again. Some of the arms-Guthrie, Olson, Albers-might be contributing. That's it. That's the list. No one else on the roster is a good bet to be around when this team is good. That the Orioles are currently playing .500 ball is basically meaningless; they're not good enough to win, and for crying out loud, haven't Orioles fans, of all people, seen this dance before? The Orioles were 39-26 in the middle of June three years ago; 24-23 at the end of May 2004; 28-27 on June 1, 2003. Every one of those years ended disastrously.

There's a rebuilding going on, but it's going to take a long time to produce anything of value. That the current group of players is overachieving is completely useless in determining what will come of the process. Virtually none of them will be in Baltimore when the Orioles are once again relevant, and that's a good thing: virtually none of them are championship-caliber players. I would include Trembley in this group; as popular as he might be at the moment, there's very little chance he will survive the stretch of losing that is to come and be the manager of the next relevant Orioles team.

I love that there are fans passionate enough to read a link and send off an angry e-mail to a writer they've never heard of. It is my hope that those same fans can look past the orange-and-black blinders and see the team that's in front of them. It's not very good, and there are a very small handful of players on it who will still be there in three years.

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

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