Orioles in 2011: cautious optimism battles old “in-between” feeling

March 26, 2011 | Luke Jones

Are the Orioles really on the right track to building something special?

MacPhail has repeatedly said the club’s vision is to be “a scouting- and development-oriented organization.” Whether you agree or not, he has claimed the Orioles cannot and will not spend inordinate amounts of money in free agency despite the reality of competing with New York and Boston in the AL East.

The Orioles finally have a spring training home with facilities suitable for a big league club. The farm system has produced Nick Markakis, Brian Matusz, Matt Wieters, and a number of others expected to make significant contributions this year and beyond. The organization is unquestionably better off than it was seven or eight years ago.

But in the wake of so many prospects graduating to the majors, the farm system is once again bare aside from lefty Zach Britton, last year’s first-round pick Manny Machado, and a handful of others at various levels. A drop-off in the system was to be expected, but it’s apparent the Orioles have placed all their eggs in this current basket of young major leaguers.

If the Orioles are to succeed under MacPhail’s dependency on talent development, much more needs to be done. Baltimore ranked fourth in the league in draft spending over the last three years, which sounds impressive until you remember the Orioles picked fifth or higher in each of those drafts. In reality, the Orioles should be near the top in draft spending, based solely on their position and spending comparably with other teams.

A $150 million payroll may be out of the question, but unlike small-market teams like Kansas City and Pittsburgh, the Orioles have the resources to blow teams out of the water in draft spending, especially if that money isn’t going into the free-agent market.

Looking beyond the draft and to the second outlet for talent development, the international market, the Orioles continue to lag behind. Considering the dramatic increase of international players in Major League Baseball over the last 25 years, the Orioles continue to barely scratch the surface in scouting the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. MacPhail recently acknowledged the organization’s need to be involved in Venezuela, from where roughly seven percent of MLB players hailed at the beginning of the 2010 season, second behind the Dominican Republic in terms of international players.

Building a successful franchise through talent development is a shrewd strategy given baseball’s current economic system, but neglecting one of the two major avenues to acquire that young talent won’t narrow the gap with the Yankees and Red Sox, or even the Rays. Yes, the international market can be risky with investing money in unproven teenagers hailing from the Dominican and other countries, but it pales in comparison to the financial peril of offering a $200 million contract to a veteran free agent.

A respectable — but not extravagant — amount of spending in the draft and an avoidance of the international market once again smells of being caught “in between” if the Orioles are truly relying on talent development in lieu of the free-agent market to compete.

Those concerns aside, we look forward to the start of the 2011 season because it looks more promising than any year in recent memory. Despite the buzz created with the signings of Guerrero and Lee, a successful season is all about the young starting pitching and the continued development of position players like Wieters and Adam Jones.

Should these players make significant strides and the Orioles find themselves hovering around 80 wins at the end of the season, then what? Does the front office finally pull the trigger on an impact free-agent signing or two beyond the one-year rentals serving as reasonable band-aids this season? Or do the Orioles simply find themselves right back where they started at the beginning of this past offseason, settling for short-term options with no real future in Baltimore?

Even worse, if the young pitchers and the likes of Wieters and Adam Jones take minimal steps forward, you face the sobering possibility that the current talent will not be enough to compete against the heavyweights of the division going forward, with little help from the farm system on the way in the immediate future.

With no apparent golden goose coming from MASN — whether you buy that claim as valid or not — to significantly boost spending as was once claimed a few years ago, the Orioles appear ready to sink or swim with the current group of players settling into the confines of Camden Yards. MacPhail should be credited for supplementing that youth with legitimate veteran talent this offseason, but the task of overtaking the Yankees and the Red Sox remains a tall one, regardless of the bold claims of Showalter and Jones that created buzz this past week.

Yes, the Orioles will be better in 2011, or at least I think they will. But beyond this season, as the organization continues to maintain a philosophy shying away from free agency and depending on player development despite a now-shallow farm system and international absenteeism, the Orioles still appear stuck “in between” a true identity, with the Yankees, Red Sox, and even the Rays continuing to lead the race by several lengths for the foreseeable future.

It’s worlds better than where they’ve been the last 13 years, but I have my doubts whether it will ultimately get them back to the top.

But after languishing in the doldrums for so long, perhaps it’s impossible to imagine until it actually comes true.