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Hey Andy MacPhail, Is The Barn Burning Yet?

Less than two weeks ago, Baltimore Orioles president Andy MacPhail said that the team was in no hurry to hire a new manager because “it’s not like the barn is on fire right now. The players are doing a nice job for Juan [Samuel].”

Over the last two weeks, the Orioles have won just two of 13 games and suddenly there is again reasonable doubt as to whether the Orioles can muster enough victories over the final two months of the season to avoid eclipsing the modern record for baseball futility established when the New York Mets went 40-120 during their inaugural 1962 season.

So, my question to Mr. MacPhail is whether the barn is burning now?

The energy the team showed early in the tenure of interim manager Juan Samuel has disappeared.

Since staging a dramatic comeback on July 20th to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays 11-10 in 13 innings, the Birds have managed just one win in eight games and been outscored 52-20.

Despite some speculation that the hiring of former Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers manager Buck Showalter was inevitable, MacPhail doesn’t seem significantly closer to having a permanent manager than he did when firing Dave Trembley nearly two months ago.

As I have written several times before, in my opinion, every day MacPhail waits to hire a full-time manager is another wasted day.

If the Orioles’ manager for 2011 turns out to be Showalter or anyone else who is not currently working as a manager or coach, MacPhail will have wasted significant time that could have been used to evaluate players and set the tone for change that is desperately needed in Baltimore.

While the team president may not be alarmed by the current play of the Orioles, it is obvious that a growing number of Oriole fans are tired of the methodical indifference that seems to be exhibited by MacPhail.

In their recent 10-game homestand that included two weekends of baseball, the Orioles averaged 18,820 fans with only three of those 10 games drawing crowds in excess of 20,000.

For a team and city that has such a great baseball tradition, that is sad and simply not acceptable.

I certainly am not blaming Baltimore fans for voicing their displeasure with the current team by leaving plenty of empty seats at Camden Yards. Considering the current economy and exorbitant cost to attend a professional sporting event, the Orioles are probably lucky to be averaging that many fans.

Of course what has made it worse is that losing is unfortunately no longer a new thing in Baltimore. The 2010 season will mark the 13th straight losing campaign for the Orioles. And barring a shocking late season turnaround, the Orioles will likely have the worst record during that stretch and have a very good chance of eclipsing the team record for losses in a season set in 1988 when the Orioles went 54-107.

Astute Oriole fans know that team began the season with 21 straight losses. However, that team actually had a better record after 100 games (32-68) than the current Orioles (31-69).

Following that season, the Orioles jettisoned a number of longtime veterans, including future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, and in 1989 Baltimore surprised the baseball world by contending for the division title into September and finishing with an 87-75 record.

It would be great if the Orioles could repeat that kind of turnaround in 2011, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

In the first place, baseball has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. While every team was generally on a level playing field in those days, we all know that baseball today is setup so that the Red Sox and Yankees are pretty much guaranteed of being contenders every year.

The Orioles have the misfortune of not only being in the same division as both of those teams, but also with two solid teams with lots of young talent in the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.

That means the Birds play a guaranteed 76 games every year against teams that have legitimate playoff aspirations.

That is a big reason that when Andy MacPhail took over as team president in 2007 he recognized that the answer for the Orioles was not a quick fix.

However, after three years of making moves designed to help the Orioles contend for the long haul, Baltimore is not only nowhere near contending, but they seem to be making steady steps backwards.

The victory total for the Orioles has declined every year since 2004 with no sign of team improvement in any area. In 2009, the Orioles won 64 games while scoring 4.57 runs per game and having a team ERA of 5.15. So far in 2010, the Orioles are scoring 3.61 runs per contest with a team ERA of 5.18.

MacPhail has staked the future of the Orioles on building a stable of young pitching arms designed to give the Birds enough talented pitchers to contend with the Yankees and Red Sox.

So far, that plan has been a complete disaster. The five members of the pitching staff who are 25 or younger have a combined record of 14-34 with a 5.72 ERA.

MacPhail has tried to supplement the staff with inexpensive veterans, but that hasn’t been too successful either. In the last two years, Mark Hendrickson, Koji Uehara and Kevin Millwood have all been brought in with the expectation they would be inning eating starters.

Hendrickson and Uehara are now members of the Baltimore bullpen and Millwood has a 2-10 record with a 5.96 ERA this season.

Though not as prolific as a year ago, the Baltimore offense still has some solid components. However, if the Orioles ever want to become a contender, they must make major upgrades at the pitching position and cannot expect that fix to come from within the minor league system.

What MacPhail doesn’t seem to understand is that this is not the same Baltimore Orioles farm system that produced Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Storm Davis, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez and Mike Boddicker. Even though the Orioles have been loading up on young arms, there is no guarantee that any of those pitchers will emerge as legitimate major league starters.

The game has also changed quite a bit since the Orioles were producing all those home-grown starters. Of the 11 primary starting pitchers for the Yankees and Red Sox in 2010, only four came up through the minor league system of either organization.

Top teams may have one or two starters who came up from within their organization, but they do not expect the entire staff to be homegrown talent. They supplement the home grown pitchers with top level starters from other teams. Not with aging veterans who are well past their prime.

I have applauded Andy MacPhail for trying to patiently build this team, but at some point he needs to become aggressive and signal to the Orioles, Baltimore fans and the baseball world that the Orioles are ready to win today.

It will take more than hiring a manager to signal that, but it would certainly be a good start. Then Baltimore needs to identify the top five available free agents for 2011 and make a legitimate attempt to add at least two of them to the roster.

Unless significant steps are made to jump start the franchise the cry of every season will be “wait until next year.” Then when “next year” finally arrives (if it ever does) it won’t matter because there will be no one left to care.


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