For the first time since 1997, Baltimore baseball fans have something to get excited about. Yes, 2010 was their 13th consecutive losing season, but they capped it off by going 34-23 (.596) under midseason managerial hire, Buck Showalter. The excitement surrounding Buck's Baby Birds prompted Eric Karabell to predict that every team in the AL East had a legitimate shot at a .500 record in 2011. And he's not wrong.
What odd about this offseason, however, is that after four seasons strongly committed to the youth movement - drafting, player development, and money-saving measures - Andy MacPhail, the Orioles GM, seems to be moving in a different direction, loading his roster with questionable veterans.
It began innocently enough, as MacPhail traded David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio to the D-Backs for slugging cornerman, Mark Reynolds. Hernandez and Mickolio were both fairly promising pitchers, still in their mid-twenties. It was testament to the Orioles farm system that they had both fallen so far back on the depth chart as to be truly expendable. And it's not as though Reynolds is past his prime. Though coming off a down year, he's only 27 and signed to very favorable terms through the 2012 season. He immediately becomes Baltimore's most substantial power threat.
What the Reynolds trade does do is block the progress of top prospect Josh Bell. Although the two-month audition at the tail end of 2010 suggested Bell isn't quite ready for "the Show," he just turned 24 and possesses a decent power profile himself...and without Reynolds propensity for leading the league in strikeouts, flirting with the Mendoza line, and flashing a iron glove.
Three days after acquiring Reynolds, MacPhail picked up another pair of infielders from the Minnesota Twins, slick-fielding shortstop, J. J. Hardy, and utilityman, Brendan Harris. For them, he surrendered a pair of young relievers, Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen. Again, both pitchers were well down the Orioles depth chart and Hardy represented a major upgrade at shortstop. With only one year left on his contract, he won't impede the ascent of 18-year-old phenom, Manny Machado.
Shortly after New Year's Day, Baltimore added another veteran rental, 35-year-old first-baseman, Derrek Lee, looking to rebuild his market coming off his worst season since 1999. MacPhail also signed mediocre reliever cum closer, Kevin Gregg, coming off a career year, and reclamation project, Jeremy Accardo. He resigned 30-year-old shortstop, Cesar Izturis, after a year in which he posted the lowest OPS of any batting title eligible player in over a decade (you're welcome, Neifi Perez). Now there are widespread reports they are nearing a deal with 35-year-old DH, Vladimir Guerrero.
What gives? Does MacPhail really believe the O's are ready to compete in 2011? If so, I'd have to question his sanity. The Orioles would need to leapfrog at least two of the three AL East powerhouses - New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay - just to get into the playoff conversation. As much as I admire the talent they've assembled, they don't have a proven frontline starter, a premier closer, or a perennial MVP candidate. The Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees can all boast of at least two of those three things.
If MacPhail isn't delusional about his chance to contend, these moves are even more difficult to parse. Baltimore will have it's highest payroll since 2007 (MacPhail's first year) by a rather wide margin. They've sacrificed a pair of first-round draft picks (Vlad and Lee were both Class A free agent), as well as four pitching prospects who all have at least modest major-league careers in front of them. And they've created some troublesome roster math.
Reynolds, Hardy, Lee, Guerrero, Izturis, Brian Roberts, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Luke Scott, are all assured roster spots. Somebody, probably Jake Fox, will need to be the back-up catcher. Robert Andino is out of minor-league options, which means Baltimore must either keep him in the majors or lose him. No matter how it shakes out, Bell, as well as Nolan Reimold and/or Felix Pie, will spend far too much of 2011 either in AAA or riding major-league pine, instead of having their abilities tested and their development furthered.
Moreover, the Orioles are now committing themselves to below average defensive players at third and in at least one of the outfield spots. The Orioles struggled on defense in 2010 (105 E, -22.9 UZR) and it could be worse in 2011. That's never a good thing, but could be especially frustrating for a young rotation which has to face in inordinate number of very patient lineups (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox) and could/should be limited by pitching counts and innings caps.
Perhaps there is method to this madness. Perhaps MacPhail has something else up his sleeve (trading Luke Scott, for instance). But, so far as I can tell, the Orioles haven't made themselves enough better in the short term to compensate for the damage they may be doing to their long term prospects.