Why the Orioles Success is Remarkable

Much has been made of all the Orioles have had to overcome this year.  The Orioles have faced countless obstacles like the injuries to Machado and Wieter’s, Jimenez and Davis’ mind-boggling ineptitude, Hunter’s failed closer experience, yada yada yada.  Yet, all of these are setbacks that have taken place just this past year.  What’s possibly more amazing is how the Orioles went from a traditionally pathetic ball club to all of a sudden (and quite unexpectedly) a well-respected, winning organization. 

There’s more than one way to build a successful major league ball club.  In the AL the Angels and Tigers have done it mostly through free agency and locking their stars up to long-term deals.  Much has been made of Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ philosophy of drafting and signing certain types of ballplayers.  The Orioles meanwhile… well how exactly have the Orioles done it?

On June 20th, 2007 Andy MacPhail was named the President of Baseball Operations (aka General Manager) of the Baltimore Orioles. Andy MacPhail was straightforward and consistent with his philosophy for creating a winning ball club, stating:

Clearly, our philosophy -- and we make no secret about this -- is that we've got to grow the arms. We can buy the bats. You're not going to be able to buy pitching. It's expensive; it's fragile and tends to shy away from the American League East unless you really pay a huge premium. We're going to have to grow our own arms.

“Grow the arms.  Buy the bats.” That was Andy MacPhail’s mantra and at the time it made sense, but in retrospect, it failed miserably.  Growing the arms means drafting and then developing the pitchers that were drafted.  In 2007, MacPhail’s first draft, he spent 2 of his top 3 picks on pitchers, selecting Timothy Bascom and Jake Arrieta.  In 2008, the Orioles selected LHP Brian Matusz fourth overall in the draft.  2009 MacPhail and the Orioles spent the fifth overall pick, on Matt Hobgood.  And in 2011, MacPhail’s final year with the Orioles, he selected Dylan Bundy in the first round.  As of today, none of these pitchers have worked out to be successful starters in the Orioles organization for an extended amount of time (though to be fair the jury is still very much out with Bundy and Arrieta looks to be turning into a good pitcher albeit with a different team).  The point is this: Andy MacPhail’s “grow the arms” campaign was a complete failure.  Ironically, those years in 2007 and 2010 when he did not spend a first round pick on a pitcher, MacPhail drafted Matt Wieters and Manny Machado respectively.  So MacPhail phailed (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) to grow the arms, but what about buy the bats? Well I guess if you consider Ty Wigginton, Garrett Atkins, and Derek Lee ‘bats’ then you could make the argument that MacPhai bought the bats, but I don’t think these were the types of bats that MacPhail or Orioles fans had in mind, so again Macphailed phailed to buy the bats. 

So to recap MacPhail repeatedly stated that his philosophy was to “Grow the arms and buy the bats” and in both of these respects he abjectly failed. Yet somehow his tenure as the Orioles GM was successful. Mostly through trades which included the trade that sent off Eric Bedard and brought in, among others, Adam Jones and Chris Tillman, and then there was the trading of Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen (who?) for JJ Hardy, and last but not least the trade that sent Koji Uehara to Texas for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. 

MacPhail’s time in Baltimore is rightly viewed as a success; it’s just interesting that it was not successful in the way MacPhail had intended it to be.

On November 8th 2011, Dan Duquette was hired as the Executive Vice-President of Baseball Operations (aka General Manager) for the Baltimore Orioles.  Duquette took over a team that the year before had lost 93 games.  Understandably Duquette came in with a focus on improving the farm system intimating that there was a long road ahead for the Orioles to become a successful ball club again.  As Duquette was introduced as the new GM of the Orioles he had this to say:

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When you don’t have the resources that the top two clubs have, you have to work harder and you have to work smarter and you have to do a better job in scouting and you have to do a better job in player development.  If you can build up the inventory of your farm system and you’ve got core players coming to your major league team you’ve got something to talk about.

And the team that’s got the best farm system is the team that competes year in and year out. So irrespective of your market size, it all starts with signing good players and bringing them up to your team.

Again, giving where the Orioles were, just like MacPhail had a good plan, Dan Duquette also had a good plan.  Though it’s too early to tell if Dan Duquette has made significant improvements in the farm system, clearly the Orioles were a lot closer to success then he (or anyone else) realized.  Once again ironically, Duquette is so far remembered most not for building up the farm system but for A. signing guys like McLouth and Pearce off the scrap heap who turn into being productive players and B. Signing big time free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz. 

The point of this article is neither to compliment nor criticize Orioles management, but just simply to point out once again how remarkable the Orioles success has been. Though John Steinbeck’s quote “The best laid plans of mice and men/often go awry” comes immediately to mind when one thinks of the Orioles management, probably the more appropriate quote would be Shakespeare’s “All’s well that ends well”.