Do you know which team the Atlanta Braves have modeled themselves after all these years? No, it's not the Dodgers. Nope, it's not the Royals either. Try to Baltimore Orioles. Well, at least the history of the Orioles, when they won two World Series in a five-year period from 1966-1970.
But those Orioles are long gone, as this once-proud organization is now a laughingstock in baseball. Baltimore has not had a winning season since 1997, when Davey Johnson led the Orioles to a division title and then got fired. It's been ten seasons of hell for the good fans of Baltimore as they have watched an incompetent owner ruin a storied franchise.
This past season was just another chapter, as Sam Perlozzo got fired and Dave Trombley took over as manager. Peter Angelos, the owner, did make a good move bringing in respected Andy MacPhail, who has had success in Minnesota and even with the Cubs. MacPhail will be the President and Trombley stays as the skipper.
Leo Mazzone's pitching staff had the second-worst ERA in the American League. But the staff he ended with is much different than the group he expected before the season. Kris Benson was lost in spring training with shoulder trouble. He missed the entire season. Jaret Wright pitched only three games before he was grounded for the season with more shoulder trouble.
Adam Loewen started six games before having to undergo surgery for a stress fracture in his pitching elbow. Staff ace Erik Bedard had to miss September with a right oblique strain. And even Jeremy Guthrie, this year's reclamation project for Mazzone, struggled at the end with a strained left oblique.
The rotation was not the only area where injuries hurt the Orioles. Closer Chris Ray was pitching well, but in August he had to have Tommy John Surgery and will miss most of next season. Then in the last week of the season Danys Baez, one of the free agents signed last winter to improve the bullpen, learned he too would have Tommy John and miss the 2008 season.
Position players were struck down too. Even Miguel Tejada, the modern-day iron man, missed 29 games with a broken bone in his left wrist.
How much better would the Orioles have been if they had stayed marginally healthy? Well it's safe to say they would have been better than the 69-93 record that got them yet another fourth place finish in the American League East. And while they do have to get some of these people healthy, the Orioles also have to improve the talent base.
Bedard and Guthrie should be back next season, but Benson and Wright will be gone. Daniel Cabrera will be right with Bedard and Guthrie to form a solid trio, although Cabrera must improve his control. Brian Burres and Garrett Olson started late in the season and could get a chance next spring. Loewen is expected back, but he's going to have to prove he's healthy before the Orioles can count on him to be a contributor.
The Orioles need to give Mazzone some help in the rotation, and with Ray and Baez out next season they may also have to add to the bullpen for the second straight offseason.
Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker, two of the other signees from last winter, may get a chance to be the closer. But the Orioles' depth is now gone, and they need a few more arms.
You have to wonder if the Miguel Tejada trade rumors will pop up again this offseason. The star shortstop wanted assurances from MacPhail late in the year that the team would try to construct a winner, but they may use him to get a package of players to try to make that happen.
Center fielder Corey Patterson is the only free agent from the starting lineup, and it's likely he'll test the market this winter. The Orioles could turn to Tike Redman or move Jay Payton over from left, but it's likely they'll pursue a replacement for Patterson via a trade or the free agent market.
Right fielder Nick Markakis is a star-in-the-making, and he continues to get better over time. Payton is now only a marginal player, so the Orioles could look for two outfielders this winter to compliment Markakis.
The infield is in good shape. Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff rotate between first base and the DH. Brian Roberts proved why the Orioles didn't want to trade him to Atlanta with another solid season. And Melvin Mora had another solid season.
Ramon Hernandez was decent as the starting catcher. He'll be the starter until former Georgia Tech star Matt Wieters is ready, which could take another year.
The Braves could look at Kris Benson to see if he's healthy and possibly an option for the rotation for next season. Atlanta has had an interest in Benson for a few years, and since he's a hometown kid and rehabbed in Atlanta all last summer, it's not out of the question. Of course, the Braves would have to make sure Benson was on the road back before even thinking about an incentive-laden contract.
Scott Williamson has also been a pitcher the Braves have had interest in the past. He missed the second half of the season, and Williamson has battled injuries for the last several seasons.
Atlanta needs a veteran backup catcher, and they know what Paul Bako can do since he played there in 2000 and 2001. Bako is not much of a hitter, but he can still catch a good game despite now being in his mid-30s.
Like Benson, Corey Patterson is an Atlanta kid and may want to come home. The Braves need a center fielder, but it seems that Patterson would be only a backup plan if expected talks with Mike Cameron, another player originally from Atlanta, do not work out.
As for trade talks, the Orioles don't seem to have much the Braves could want, unless Atlanta gets tempted by Daniel Cabrera. He's frustrated the Orioles, but it's doubtful they'd give up on him. And the Braves biggest trading piece is a shortstop, and unless Tejada is traded the Orioles would not need Edgar Renteria.
You do wonder if the Orioles would have interest in left fielder Matt Diaz, who would be perfect for the American League. Even though his defense has improved, he could be a great DH, along with possibly splitting time with Payton in left.
Leo Mazzone has one year left on his contract, the one he left Atlanta for two Octobers ago. The Orioles need to somehow get him some more pupils to work with, ones with talent, if they want to turn this long-suffering franchise around anytime soon.
Pending Free Agents: Kris Benson *, Jaret Wright, Victor Zambrano, Paul Shuey, Scott Williamson, Paul Bako, Alberto Castillo, Roger Cedeno, Corey Patterson.
Players Eligible for Arbitration: Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.