Orioles finally may be ready to buck losing trend
The buzz phrase most often heard around the Orioles since the hiring of Buck Showalter as manager last Aug. 3 is “changing the culture.’’ The “losing culture,’’ that is, which appears to be changing rapidly, bringing hope, finally, of something sustainable after 13 losing seasons.
It almost feels as if the Orioles — who for almost two decades seemed to morph into their hapless St. Louis Browns ancestors — are brand new.
From the moment you drive into the refurbished Ed Smith Complex in Sarastoa, Fla. — where former Red Sox architect Janet Marie Smith has worked her magic — you can sense a different feel.
For a while, opponents of the Orioles farm team in the Gulf Coast League would not allow their young players to play on the embarrassingly dilapidated Orioles fields, so all “home’’ games had to be played on the road.
It was such an odd juxtaposition for an organization whose major league team played in one of the crown jewels of sports facilities, Camden Yards.
Smith oversaw a sparkling $34 million renovation of the spring facility, including four practice fields attached to the main stadium and six down the road at the Buck O’Neil Complex. It was symbolic of an organization that needed not only a physical makeover but a return to the brand of baseball referred to as “the Oriole Way.’’
The Orioles also have a new Dominican Republic facility and have greatly enhanced their farm system and scouting departments.
Andy MacPhail, now in his fifth season as Orioles president and general manager, got off to a slow start in the rebuilding. But he had a track record in Minnesota, just as Showalter had a reputation for taking bad situations and making them better.
“There was no magic formula,’’ said MacPhail. “We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. The Orioles I grew up with did it with scouting and player development, and we’re doing it the same way now.
“When we traded Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada, we knew this was going to be a process. Don’t look at the height of the mountain, just climb.’’
MacPhail knew Showalter, though not well. But MacPhail was struck by Showalter’s past success in rebuilding teams. Showalter told him, “You’ve got to know who you are as an organization.’’
Showalter was talked into leaving a comfortable situation as an analyst at ESPN. He surveyed the situation and asked a lot of people questions about what he was getting into. He managed 57 games last season, going 34-23 — a winning percentage of almost .600.
“There were a lot of good things going on here,’’ Showalter said. “Sometimes there’s the connotation that because there are struggles in the W column, everything is bad.
“You try to empower the players to have a stake in the Orioles being good.’’
Showalter had previously managed in 2006 in Texas and had kicked the tires over the years on other opportunities, but nothing felt right until he got to Baltimore.
“I wasn’t stale at all,’’ he said. “We learn from all our experiences. I’ve lost my naivete about things.
“When I left Arizona, that was the first one where I went, ‘Really?’ I miss that naivete a little bit, but now I know that things happen for a reason.
“People ask me if I would have done anything different; we all would have. You do what’s right and treat people with a pure heart.’’
When people asked, “Why Baltimore?’’, he said, “Why not?’’
“Great fan base, great ballpark,’’ he said. “We have one of the higher viewerships of any team in the country. We have to regain their trust.
“I love the way Andy approaches things and the job he does and [owner] Peter [Angelos’s] support.
“We have great resources here, with ex-players who built a winning tradition. And I like when people tell us that something can’t be done.
“They say the division? The division falls under the [no kidding] category. We have to be better sooner or later. You hear about the payrolls of the other teams, and nobody’s checkbook is bouncing here. Tampa Bay has broken down those barriers, and you can’t associate the size of your pocketbook with your brain power.’’
According to MacPhail, 45 of Showalter’s 57 games were against teams over .500, which is why, with the blessing of Angelos, MacPhail raised the payroll from $73 million to $93 million. It was a sign the Orioles were ready to play with the big boys.
The money was spent the way MacPhail believes it should be: build your team with your own pitchers (because the pitching market is expensive and unpredictable) and then purchase or trade for hitters.
This will be a lineup filled with strikeouts and home runs. MacPhail brought in Derrek Lee to play first base, acquired strikeout king Mark Reynolds (who has tremendous power) to shore up third base, and signed DH Vlad Guerrero to augment the core of Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters.
Reaching .500 for the first time since 1997 could hinge on whether the young pitching staff matures in the very challenging American League East. Lefty Brian Matusz went 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA from Aug. 4 on, and all of his starts came against teams over .500. Righty Jake Arrieta should be one of the game’s rising young stars. Chris Tillman has been slower in developing and remains the wild card. Veteran Jeremy Guthrie should provide stability.
“If our kids grow up quicker than normal, we’ll have some fun this year,’’ Showalter said.
CARDINALS GET WINGED
Wainwright’s injury is huge in loss columnThe Cardinals take the prize for “worst start in spring training.’’
First was the Albert Pujols contract impasse, and now ace Adam Wainwright needs Tommy John surgery. This is absolutely horrible for the Cardinals, who had a tremendous 1-2 punch in Wainwright and Chris Carpenter.
Now what? They may make a move for a free agent like Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman. Or perhaps consider a trade (dare we say for a Barry Zito, Scott Kazmir, or Joe Blanton)?
If the Cardinals falter in the National League Central, would that affect Pujols’s decision on whether to stay or leave? He has said he wants to remain a Cardinal for the remainder of his career, but now they have a significant pitching issue.
This is no small problem, with much stiffer divisional competition in the Brewers, Reds, and perhaps Cubs.
“This is somewhat similar to the Yankees losing [Andy] Pettitte,’’ said an NL executive. “You don’t really replace them. Wainwright was one of, if not the best pitcher in our league last season. I don’t know if Chris Carpenter can still go out there and be that dominating guy. So this one is a big one.’’
This would be like the Red Sox losing Jon Lester or the Mariners losing Felix Hernandez. It puts more onus on Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia, and Carpenter to do more, but pitching doesn’t really work that way.
“If Tony [La Russa] can turn both the Pujols situation and the Wainwright situation into a positive, or not a significant distraction, he’ll have done his best managing job ever,’’ said the executive.
This is why Theo Epstein tries to go seven or eight deep with starters, with Tim Wakefield, Alfredo Aceves, and the recent bid to add Chad Durbin to the mix.
“I don’t care how good your front five are, you need to have pitchers who can step in,’’ said the executive. “Obviously, the big-market teams can afford to pay a little extra to keep a veteran around for a rainy day, but we’ve all been in the position where a guy goes down and we’re wondering how we’re going to replace him.’’
Wealthier franchises don’t see it as fair shareIn the same week, executives with the Yankees and Red Sox mentioned revenue sharing. On this topic, the two stand united.
CEO Larry Lucchino said the Sox contributed about $86 million to the pot. Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner called the $130 million he contributed “socialism.’’
The Sox and Yankees are fed up with sharing their wealth with small-market teams that don’t necessarily utilize it to improve their major league team. Steinbrenner’s comment about not putting or leaving teams in small markets was interesting.
It has to frost the big-market owners when the Royals get revenue-sharing money yet are owned by one of the richest men in America (David Glass).
Yet, nobody wants a salary cap.
“One of the beauties of baseball is the lack of a salary cap,’’ said an American League executive. “In any given year, a team can come out of the blue and win the World Series, just like the Giants did last year and the Marlins in 2003. That’s not the case in most of the sports which have salary caps.’’
The Players Association would never allow a salary cap, anyway. So the solution may be what Steinbrenner suggests: If you can’t run your business well enough, you shouldn’t have a business.
“They’re not putting the money in players, they’re putting it in profit,’’ said the executive.
Pirates president Frank Coonelly said last week that he will not raise payroll unless attendance improves in Pittsburgh. Mr. Henry and Mr. Steinbrenner might have a response to that.
It’s also evident that baseball and Florida haven’t exactly hit it off. Both the Rays and Marlins had their largest attendance in their inaugural seasons. The Marlins in 1993 drew 3.064 million, then reached 2 million only one other time, in 1997, the first of their two world championship seasons. The Rays drew 2.5 million in 1998, their first year, and have not gone over 2 million since.
So the Yankees and Sox thrive, and continue to share their profits with organizations that just aren’t running their businesses well. Therein lies the frustration of the two superpowers, who want some relief.
Apropos of nothing 1. Darn. Never got to write about Red Sox prospect Kendrick Perkins on former Celtic Kendrick Perkins, who was traded to Oklahoma City. They grew up in the Houston area, about 10 minutes apart, but never met; 2. Former Sox infielder Royce Clayton has started a company called “Ball Tunes,’’ which creates customized walk-up music for players; 3. Former Red Sox outfielder Reggie Smith was in Fort Myers as a bat company rep. We forget what a nice career the switch-hitting Smith had: 314 homers, .287 average; 4. Jim Rice is right: Why don’t players practice hitting more breaking balls?; 5. Brady Anderson is an instructor in Orioles camp, and it’s not far-fetched that at age 47 he can probably beat most of the players in a foot race.
Updates on nine 1. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox — There are early signs of healing for Peavy, who suffered a detached lat muscle beneath his right shoulder. The White Sox will need him if they’re going to win the tough AL Central. If the White Sox underachieve and Peavy is healthy? “Trade bait for sure,’’ said an American League scout. “Though teams may come after [Mark] Buehrle first.’’
2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox — Agent John Boggs and the Sox have not spoken about a contract extension since December. Something may be set up soon, but as of now, Boggs does not plan to be in Fort Myers until the third week of March. Some feel the contract is a done deal, but if so, the sides are doing a tremendous acting job.
3. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers — He broke a pinky in camp and will miss about a month after having surgery to insert a pin. For now, the Brewers aren’t going to replace him, feeling they have good veteran backups in Wil Nieves, Mike Rivera, and (ahem) George Kottaras. They don’t want to bring in someone such as Bengie Molina, knowing their catcher of the future will be ready a couple of weeks into the season.
4. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs — He was a very expensive option for a big-market team looking for a starter, but nobody bit on the temperamental righty who went 8-0 in August and September. Zambrano completed an anger management course in the offseason and told Chicago area reporters last week, “It’s all done. I’m cured. That was an experience that I can talk [about] through the years. Maybe in the future I can be a pitching coach and speak to the young kids about what I went through, what happened in my career, things that I experienced.’’
5. A.J. Burnett, RHP, Yankees — Hank Steinbrenner spoke about not seeing hunger in the eyes of some of his players last season, and Burnett was one of his targets. But the Yankees co-chairman feels that whatever Burnett lost has returned. “I just feel that way after a response he gave to one of our pitching coaches after he asked a specific question,’’ Steinbrenner said, without elaborating. Burnett must take the tutelage of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild and improve on his 10-15, 5.26 season and be the 15- to 20-game winner the Yankees expected.
6. Javier Lopez, LHP, Giants — The Red Sox can only hope that Rich Hill, with his new sidearm delivery, is as effective as Lopez was for the Giants last season. In the playoffs, Phillies sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were a combined 1 for 10 against Lopez. Including the regular season, they were 1 for 18. Pretty impressive. Lopez is proof how valuable a tough lefty specialist is, offsetting the biggest lefthanded bats at the most crucial times.
7. Derrek Lee, 1B, Orioles — Recalling Gonzalez as a young player with the Marlins, Lee said, “You knew how good he was going to be. Really smooth around the bag, beautiful swing. It was just a matter of time. I spoke to him a lot back then and he really had his head on straight. I haven’t spent too much time at Fenway Park, but he’ll fit well in that park.’’
8. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers — He already has a calf strain, which happened while he was working out at his home in Los Angeles prior to reporting. One fear the Red Sox had in drawing the line at a four-year, $52 million offer to keep Beltre was the potential for him to get hurt, given the 100-mile-per-hour way he gets after things. Beltre had supplanted Michael Young as the Rangers’ starting third baseman, but Young may now get some reps at his old spot.
9. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants — Manager Bruce Bochy said he will put no restrictions on Bumgarner’s innings after the lefty’s meteoric rise last year. The Giants may, however, have him skip a start or two in April and use Barry Zito as the fourth starter. Bumgarner, 21, went 7-6 with a 3.00 ERA in 111 innings, then appeared in four postseason games (three starts), going 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA.
Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Albert Pujols is the only player in baseball history who in his first 10 seasons had at least 1,900 hits (he has exactly 1,900), 400 homers (he has 408), and 1,200 RBIs (he has 1,230). Ted Williams had only the RBIs. Al Simmons had the hits and RBIs. Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig were 0 for 3.’’ Also, “From 2001-10, only Alex Rodriguez (424) had more homers than Pujols (408); only Rodriguez (1,236) had more RBIs than Pujols; and nobody scored more runs than Pujols (1,186), including A-Rod, who was second with 1,130.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Matt Stairs (43) and Anibal Sanchez (27).