Washington, DC, USA; Baltimore Orioles teammates Nick Markakis (right), Xavier Avery (13) and Adam Jones (10) celebrate after defeating the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. The Orioles defeated the Nationals 2-1. Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE
The Orioles are baseball's surprise team right now. What can they teach the last-place teams of today?
The reason you're reading this right now is because of the 1997 Giants. I was a baseball fan before, but that was the season that sent me over the edge into obsession and made me a writer. The 1996 Giants were abysmal, and in the offseason, they traded their second-best player for a handful of magic beans. It was supposed to be a long, grueling rebuilding process.
Then they went 17-7 in April. And it was supposed to be an early season fluke. They went 14-14 in May, despite being outscored by almost 30 runs. This went on all season, and the whole time, Giants fans were told why it wasn't going to happen.
So I'm sensitive to the plight of surprise teams. When they said the Indians couldn't do it last year, I stood up on the table, raised an angry fist, and shouted, "Hey! You be nice to the Indians!" Then the Indians embarrassed me. Also, the librarian told me to leave. But I'm not going to write a downer post about how the Orioles aren't likely to keep this up. It's possible they won't. It might be probable that they won't. But it's baseball, where the only way to look truly stupid is by affecting an air of certainty.
Instead, this is a look at what kind of hope the Orioles can give the perpetually rebuilding teams right now. Forget the horrors the rest of the season might bring: Right now the Orioles are a success story. They're the losers who got popular, like Brian Austin Green after the first season of 90210, when he moved from gangly, unliked freshman to guy hanging with Luke F'n Perry. You all know what I'm talking about. Don't pretend like you're better than me.
The lessons of hope the Orioles can offer:
1. You, too, can keep your homegrown players without worrying too much!
The Royals already had a leg up on this strategy, as they've been busy locking up every player with more than a few days of service time. So in that respect, the Adam Jones extension isn't that novel. But the Orioles can offer hope with the long-term deals that didn't go quite as they expected. Nick Markakis's $66 million extension essentially kicked in this year. When the Orioles agreed to it, they thought they were locking up a future star and a face of the franchise. They instead locked up a guy who was, in scouting terms, a'ight. He wasn't bad. Just not as special as they'd hoped. And while the Brian Roberts extension wasn't exactly a team locking up a young player, it was a team keeping a fan favorite.
Neither deal worked out as planned. Neither deal prevented the team from acquiring complementary pieces in the offseason, extending a player like Jones, or offering large bonuses to players like Matt Wieters and Dylan Bundy. There are risks with long-term deals. The 2012 Orioles look a team that can succeed despite some financial flops with those risks.
2. Trades for loose ends can work out
Not every deal has to be Erik Bedard for Adam Jones. Rebuilding teams don't have to always target top-100 prospects and look for the big score. When the Orioles had Koji Uehara locked up for a couple of years, nice and cheap, they still figured that a flier on the Dave Kingman promise of Chris Davis was worth the risk. Add in the unexciting-but-competent Tommy Hunter, and it was an unexciting trade that's worked out so far.
Plus, Chris Davis has more wins than Cliff Lee, so you know it was a good deal.
3. You don't have to jam your rotation full of upper-level prospects just because you feel like you have to
Developing pitchers doesn't mean pounding them against the wall over and over again like a racquetball, figuring they'll eventually get it with enough trial-by-firing. The Orioles took some international fliers to fill two of their rotation slots, and they exchanged Jeremy Guthrie for someone with a little more upside. The Jason Hammel trade was similar to what the Royals tried to do with the Jonathan Sanchez trade -- acquire a hard-throwing project, and hope everything falls into place. It sure worked out for the Orioles. Sorry about that, Royals!
Feels like I'm picking a lot on the Royals so far. Don't mean to. It's just that they're the argument against everything I'm writing, and I hate them for it.
4. Stopgaps who aren't blocking anyone: always a good idea
There's a knee-jerk response every time a bad team acquires a familiar name over (or close to) 30. The commonly used phrase is "won't be around for the next good team." I might have used that one a few times myself.
But there's a difference between the Orioles signing Pudge Rodriguez to play over Wieters and the Orioles getting Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson. The acquisitions of the latter two didn't block a hot, major-league ready prospect. Betemit has quietly built a solid career (.265/.333/.447 in over 2,000 PA, with the ability to play several positions), and he signed for not much over the minimum. Johnson had a hilarious .000/.133/.000 line in April.
Both are helping now, even if only a little bit. They're reminders that rebuilding teams don't always need to acquire good young players. Simply good players will do. And if the young talent comes into their own around them, you'll be glad they're around. This is similar to what the Royals tried to do with Jeff Francoeur before they ... yeah.
I made it through this passage without making a Nick Johnson injury joke! Think I'm maturing, guys. Though not so much that I can resist re-appropriating this Confused Nick Johnson picture from Productive Outs:
There are still 117 games left in the season for the Orioles. In the 2268 games before this season, the Orioles were not a good baseball team. So the Winston Wolf quote applies. But if you take a snapshot of the 2012 season right now, the Orioles can offer hope to the downtrodden. For a couple of months, the method to their madness proved sound.