The Orioles have not yet reached the level of the Pirates when it comes to sustained futility. They are getting close, though. The Orioles will finish under .500 for a 12th consecutive season since 1997, a year in which they won 98 regular-season games, only to lose to the Indians in the 1997 American League Championship Series. That ’97 season seems like a lifetime ago as, at 59-85, the Orioles seem certain to lose at least 90 games for the fourth straight season and for the seventh time in the last nine years.
The Pirates set the major North American professional sports record for most consecutive losing seasons last week when they clinched their 17th in a row. While the Orioles aren’t there yet, the frustration of so many years of losing is obvious. “Every time you look at the scoreboard and you see your team 32 or 33 games behind, it’s kind of ridiculous,” said third baseman Melvin Mora, whom the Orioles acquired from the Mets in a trade during the 2000 season. “There’s nothing we can do about it now. Right now, we’re just fighting to not lose 100 games. That’s never happened to me before, but what can I say? I cannot say, ‘Go have fun,’ because you cannot have fun when you’re 32 games out.”
It has not been a fun decade for the Orioles. Center fielder Adam Jones, out for the remainder of the season because of a sprained left ankle, has only been with the Orioles for two seasons. However, that has been long enough for him to understand the sustained disappointment that surrounds the franchise. “I’m a city guy, and I really like walking around Baltimore,” Jones said. “People are always stopping me and telling me how much they love the Orioles, the pride they have in the great tradition of the franchise and how tough it’s been to see us lose for so many years. There is a lot of frustration and I understand. But those same fans also tell me they can’t wait until the day that we get good again. They tell me it will be unbelievable and that the whole city will be going wild. I look forward to that day. I can’t wait for it to come.”
While that day still seems to be somewhere in the future, there is little doubt the Orioles are positioned better than at any point since all the losing began in 1998 when owner Peter Angelos ran general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson out of town. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail has slowly rebuilt the organization’s base of young talent through some shrewd trading and good drafting. The 24-year-old Jones made the All-Star team for the first time this season, and he is flanked by a potential star in right fielder Nick Markakis, and left fielder Nolan Reimold, both 25. Matt Wieters, 23, had had an uneven performance since making his much-ballyhooed big-league debut in June. However, he was considered the best catching prospect since Johnny Bench when coming out of Georgia Tech two years ago.
The Orioles’ biggest strength lies in their stable of young pitching, which has filtered into the starting rotation this season. The first wave came earlier in the year, starting with right-handers Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, and David Hernandez. That set the stage for left-hander Brian Matusz and right-hander Chris Tillman, the Orioles’ two best pitching prospects-and two of most highly regarded in all of baseball-to make their debuts later in the season. The Orioles feel they have another potential ace in right-hander Jake Arrieta, who finished the season at Triple-A Norfolk.
“I haven’t been in the organization for very long but it didn’t take long to see we have a lot good young talent,” said Matusz, the Orioles’ first-round draft pick in 2008 from the University of San Diego. “Everyone always talks about how there is a shortage of quality pitching in baseball but we have plenty of good young pitchers in this organization. It’s fun because we really push each other to be better. But it’s not just the pitching. We have good hitters coming, too, and already on the major league roster. It’s really an exciting time to be an Oriole. I know we’ve lost for a long time but I really believe it’s not going to be long before we’re playing winning baseball and contending for championships.”
The Orioles are in a tough spot, playing in the American League East with the Yankees and Red Sox. However, the Rays showed last season that a team with a good core group of young talent could take down the heavyweights, and the Orioles are following that same plan. MacPhail says the Orioles will not be deterred in their building, shooting down reports he might package some of his better prospects in a trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in the offseason. “I don’t see us giving up any key building blocks going forward at this stage of the game,” MacPhail said. “I’m pretty optimistic that we’re going to be able to acquire guys that are going to be meaningful improvements for us without having to sacrifice key guys. There are going to be plenty of options for us to help ourselves without giving up any of our key guys.”
The Red Sox have taken control of the AL wild-card race as they hold a 5½-game lead over the Rangers. That is quite a turnaround from early August when the Red Sox lost six straight games, two to the Rays and four to the Yankees. The skid basically ended the Red Sox’s chances of winning the AL East as they went from a half-game behind the Yankees to 6½ back in less than a week.
“We were scuffling, trying to find not so much an identity but something to grab onto,” left fielder Jason Bay said. “We were pitching well but not hitting. It was one of those situations where it seemed like it spiraled and now we’ve kind of righted that and we’re spiraling the other way.”
The Red Sox have gone 23-10 since that skid and now seem all but certain to get to the postseason for the third straight season and the sixth time in the last seven years. Perhaps the biggest reason for the Red Sox’s turnaround is that right-hander Clay Buchholz has started to live up to the great expectations he set by throwing a no-hitter against the Orioles in his second career start in 2007. He began the season at Triple-A Pawtucket because the Red Sox had no room for him in their rotation but would up in the major leagues following the early-season meltdown of Daisuke Matsuzaka and the subsequent releases of John Smoltz and Brad Penny. Buchholz has contributed 2.2 SNLVAR in just 12 starts to rank fourth on the staff behind left-hander Jon Lester (5.9), Josh Beckett (4.8), and Tim Wakefield (2.9), but more tellingly, he’s provided the team its second-best Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.577), behind only Lester. As a result, Buchholz will almost certainly be Boston’s third starter in the post-season rotation behind some combination of Lester and Beckett.
“It’s exciting,” manager Terry Francona said of Buchholz’s development. “When he pitches well, it’s hard not to think about the future. I know we’re in the present but he’s a young pitcher that’s trying to establish himself as a winner. When he does that, it certainly makes the future appear a lot brighter. You can’t find pitching. We all talk about it and you’ve got a guy right in your own backyard. We know he’s gone through all the ups and downs, but now it seems he’s understanding it and that’s exciting.”
The Yankees will go into the postseason as the favorites to win their first World Series championship since 2000 as their 93-53 record is the best in the major leagues. However, what could keep the Yankees from winning it all is their long-time nemesis, the Angels. The Halos have the second-best record in the majors at 86-58, and they are the one team that seems to have the formula of how to beat the Yankees. The Angels knocked the Yankees out in the American League Division Series in both 2002 and 2005, and have won 32 of the last 49 games between the two teams.
However, with an October meeting between the clubs a strong possibility, the Angels are hesitant to say they have the Yankees’ number. “By no means have we dominated those guys,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’ve competed well against them but they’re tough.” Third baseman Chone Figgins told the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna, “It’s always a battle against them and we’ve had our share of success but I don’t think it’s because we’re in their heads.”
Many scouts believe the Angels hold the edge on the Yankees because they have more team speed and athleticism. “We run the bases aggressively and we put pressure on you, but that stuff doesn’t show up in Kansas City and Seattle,” Figgins said. “It shows up more because it’s New York, and you’re not expected to have a good record against the Yankees.”
The Royals are wrapping up another miserable season as they are 58-86. Only the Nationals (50-94) and Pirates (55-88) have worse records. Yet manager Trey Hillman says this has not been a lost season. He is adamant that the Royals are going in the right direction, even if they will finish under .500 for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons and extend their post-season drought to 24 years. “I don’t think all of the factors have been evaluated fairly,” Hillman said. “It all goes back to what we all get judged on, wins and losses, because that’s what counts in our world and in our culture of immediate satisfaction and what have you done for me today. There’s a lot that goes into (evaluating an organization). I know a lot of things that are in the works for our minor league system and our scouting department, things that I’ve seen improve just in the two years I’ve been here.”
Hillman joined the Yankees’ organization as a minor league coach in 1989, and then was a manager in their farm system from 1990-2001. He thinks the Royals are at the same stage now that the Yankees were two decades ago. The Bombers did not reach the postseason from 1982-94, but they then won four World Series in a five-year span from 1996-2000. “Arguably, they’ve got more money than anybody else, but it’s not too dissimilar,” Hillman said.
Nevertheless, Hillman admits that waiting for the payoff at the big-league level isn’t always easy. “On most days, I can keep the big picture but there are a lot of days that I haven’t because of the frustration over the lack of wins,” he said. “You try to stay as consistent as you can and give your best honest effort in working every day and let it fall where it falls at the end of the day. It gets discouraging when you’re not winning ballgames but the biggest reason it gets discouraging is because most of the time that’s the only gauge that most people us as to whether or not you’re successful or unsuccessful. There are too many other factors that go into it.”
Scouts’ views on various major leaguers
- Braves left fielder Garret Anderson: “He’s had a solid career, but I can’t imagine anyone is going to give him a chance to be a regular next season. He’s reached that stage of his career where he gets exposed when he plays too much.”
- Cubs infielder Jeff Baker: “He has quietly been a real bright spot for the Cubs. They made a mistake when they traded Mark DeRosa but they rectified it when they traded (with the Rockies) for Baker.”
- Rays reliever Grant Balfour: “This guy has taken a major step backward this year. He’s back to having the same problem he always had before last year, and that’s that he can’t throw the ball over the plate with any consistency.”
- Dodgers infielder Ronnie Belliard: “It’s amazing what a guy can do when he actually cares. He sleepwalked all season in Washington, then flipped the switch when he got to Los Angeles and in a pennant race.”
- Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley: “You talk about a kid whose confidence is shot right now. Everyone knows he has talent but he just looks lost on the mound.”
- Padres right-hander Kevin Correia: “He’s quietly had a nice season for San Diego. He’s always had talent, and it looks like he’s a late bloomer.”
- Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond: “This kid can hit and really play some defense. If I’m the Nationals, he’s my shortstop on Opening Day next year instead of Cristian Guzman.”
- Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury: “He is emerging into a premier player. He’s tightened up his plate discipline, learned how to pick his spots to steal, and become a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder. He’s about one step from being a superstar.”
- Rangers right-hander Scott Feldman: “The guy is having a great season, and there is absolutely no buzz about him. He’s really perfected that sinker and now seems to be able to get a ground ball anytime he wants.”
- Royals right-hander Zack Greinke: “If this kid doesn’t win the (American League) Cy Young Award, it’ll be a crime. He’s the best pitcher in the league and it’s not close. It’s not his fault he plays on an awful team.”
- Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner: “I don’t know if he’ll ever get back to being one of the top hitters in the game, but he seems to be getting over his shoulder surgery. He’s swinging the bat better than he has since he first got hurt last year.”
- Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson: “Everyone knows this kid has great stuff but I don’t think people give him enough credit for knowing how to use it. He’s a really smart pitcher and he makes adjustments very quickly.”
- Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez: “He’s always been talented, but he has taken a big step forward this year. He has better poise on the mound. He doesn’t get flustered anymore.”
- Phillies reliever Brad Lidge: “If the Phillies are serious about trying to repeat as World Series champs, there is no way they can use him as the closer in the postseason. It’s too late in the season to think you’re going to straighten him out now.”
- Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez: “He’s given them a huge lift since they got him from the Indians. That whole club has perked up since he got there. He was the shot in the arm they needed.”
- Angels first baseman Kendry Morales: “For me, he’s the surprise player of the year in the American League. He has always had talent but I don’t think anyone saw him turning into an MVP candidate in his first year as a starter.”
- Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann: “He’s finally healthy and figured out how to leverage his 6-foot-9 frame. He comes straight over the top, and the ball looks like it’s right on top of the hitter when he releases it. It helps his stuff look better than it is.”
- Athletics catcher Landon Powell: “He’s a really good number two catcher, and the pop in his bat is intriguing. It make you wonder what he could do if he ever got the chance to play more.”
- Blue Jays left-hander David Purcey: “I know he’s been a big disappointment, but there’s something there. The old scouting adage about never giving up on a lefty might apply in this case.”
- White Sox left fielder Carlos Quentin: “He’s a good hitter, but he just looks miserable playing the game. He looks like he is never having any fun at all.”
- Royals right-hander Robinson Tejeda: “I know he’s pitched well since they put him in the rotation, but it’s a mirage. He is what he is, and that’s a mop-up reliever.”
- Marlins right-hander Chris Volstad: “He took a step backward this year. He can be a good middle-of-the-rotation guy, but he has to throw strikes because he’s not good enough to get guys out without command of his pitches.”
- Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Young: “I know it’s easy to say this guy was a one-year fluke, and a lot of people have written him off, but the talent is still there. I wouldn’t give up on him yet.”
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):