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In 2005, the Orioles came out to a roaring start. Brian Roberts was the best player in baseball, Miguel Tejada was everything advertised, B.J. Ryan was fronting an effective bullpen and the Orioles were in first place for a third of the season. Ah, times were good in Baltimore. As it turns out, it was all a cruel prelude to a disastrous decline in the second half that included the outing of a future Hall of Famer and a small explosion in Brian Roberts' elbow.
And somehow, the 2006 season was even more disappointing.
Not only did the Orioles continue their streak of losing seasons, they did so in the midst of much controversy. For starters, the bulk of the off-season was stunted by Miguel Tejada's unfailing sense of self-pity. Then, during the season, WNST 1570 AM organized a well publicized protest against the ownership group fronted by Peter Angelos. It's no surprise that the Orioles have are not considered an ideal destination for most free agents. Even Executive Vice President Jim Duquette agrees, recently declaring "We've been willing to spend the money in the past ... we've either gotten outbid or turned down. I think this year we're willing to go with a little more money than anyone else or an extra year to see if we can get the right guy."
Of course, not everything went wrong for the birds. It became apparent that after a long hiatus, an improved farm system was finally ready to bear some fruit. Nick Markakis, Adam Loewen, and Chris Ray all established themselves as key components of the next great Oriole team. Even those young players that struggled more often showed glimpses of their potential. According to Duquette, "We got on-the-job training for some of our young guys so that next year, when we're in a better situation, they will have already gotten it. There's a process that a young player goes through, and I think we'll be better off if we have to rely on them next year."
All of this puts the Orioles in an unenviable situation of being desperate for immediate respectability. And it wouldn't be terribly difficult to improve, perhaps significantly, on Brandon Fahey's impression of a left fielder, Rodrigo Lopez's disappointing 2006 or the ill-fated Russ Ortiz experiment. Despite this, the Orioles are a team with more than a few warts. They lost 92 games this season. In order to compete in the AL East, they would have to add at least twenty wins in one off-season; something will be made even more difficult by a free agent class devoid of a Carlos Beltran, Miguel Tejada, or Vladimir Guerrero-like talent.
Instead, the Orioles could pursue a mid-tier corner outfielder on the free agent market, utilize their depth of young pitching to acquire a young first baseman, and sit tight with their largely homegrown pitching staff; all while looking ahead to a time when making a big splash on the free agent market would be both practical and more feasible. Of course, the Orioles may not have that luxury. Their fan base is understandably restless and increased revenue flow from the newly launched Mid-Atlantic Sports Network may inspire some immediate action.
The one thing that Baltimoreans will not stand for is another off-season like the past eight. The Orioles need to decide whether they are capable of building a winning team in 2007 or cash in their valuable veterans for players that will be part of their next winning season. The lack of commitment to either direction is the direct cause of this organization's decade of mediocrity. No more 40-year old Jeff Conine signings. No more Jeromy Burnitz offers.
Orioles' fans deserve a winning team. Failing that, they deserve to not be insulted with another middling, aging product.
In our next intallment, we'll take a look at the various options available to fill the hole in left field.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com