James Baker: Where do we go from here?

Does anyone really have an answer to that question? Everyone has a theory, but can anyone really say that any one of them will make the Orioles a competitive team in 2012?

Yu Darvish is the latest Japanese superstar rumored to be on his way to America. The half-Iranian, half-Japanese Darvish will likely command a ridiculous posting fee to even begin negotiations. I don’t see the Orioles doing that, so put it out of your minds. The Orioles are more likely to be involved with a free agent like Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder; though that is kind of like saying I have a better chance of winning $10,000 on a scratch-off as opposed to the grand prize of $1 million.

Heath Bintliff wrote about the murkiness of the Orioles’ starting rotation - well, murky doesn’t begin to describe it. The Orioles really don’t have a rotation right now. Brian Matusz is being skipped again; we have no word on Jim Johnson; Tommy Hunter just got out of the hospital; the only reliable starter the Orioles have right now is a kid named TBA, who shows up all the time.

I am frankly out of words to describe this trainwreck of a season, and judging by the abysmal crowds at the Toronto series, most of the fans are out of patience. Looking back at this time last year the Orioles seemed to have finally turned a corner. Buck Showalter had brought energy, accountability and instant respect to this team and its fans. The Orioles were winning games they normally lost. The pitchers were pitching, the hitters were hitting and defenders were defending. Virtually every aspect of the game was going well. After their near historically bad start, the Orioles actually played .500 ball for the second half of last year. When thinking about how bad things were in the spring compared to the summer that .500 record becomes even more impressive.

How did this happen?

I think one major culprit was changing pitching coaches. Showalter had every right to come into Baltimore and bring in whomever he wanted, but I think he made a mistake exchanging Rick Kranitz for Mark Connor. The young pitchers had done well with Kranitz and had nothing but ebullient praise for their big league coach. When it broke that Kranitz was leaving, I seem to remember Matusz expressing his displeasure in a very diplomatic way. No one really thought much of it at the time, but all of our pitchers regressed under Connor and then he up and resigned halfway through the season. Now, Connor obviously knows what he is doing, he has been in this game long enough and had plenty of success elsewhere, but for whatever the reason, it did not happen here. We may never truly know the reasons for Connor’s departure, but that was the beginning. With the coaching staff in disarray, injuries began to pile up and the starting pitching just collapsed on itself. Starting struggles lead to an overworked bullpen, which leads to blowing leads late in games or letting games get out of hand; which, in turn, demoralizes the rest of the team. This is how death spirals are born.

It of course is not all Connor’s fault, or Showalter’s, for that manner. Derrek Lee was a gigantic disappointment. Yes, Lee was coming off a down year, but a vast majority of baseball personalities saw the Orioles’ acquisition of Lee as a chance to catch a rebounding star and possibly be able to spin him off at the trade deadline - or at least let him walk at the end of the year for picks. The Orioles really didn’t have any better options than Lee, so why not?

Looking back at the drawn-out negotiations and his lackluster performance, you get the serious impression that Lee really did not want to be here. Along the same lines, Vlad Guerrero was massive flop, as well. There were many that felt the Orioles were silly going after these vets; other felt that the Orioles found reliable stopgaps that could be turned into future players through trades. The former group seems to be right, but I honestly don’t think that the Orioles’ record would have been much better with prospects in those positions and minus the Jeremy Guthrie and Adam Jones needed to get those prospects. Yes, I understand that this team should be building for the future, which leads me to my next point: player development.

I have no idea what nuances go into developing and conditioning players, but either the Orioles are doing something wrong or they are the unluckiest team of all time. I have no idea what they should change or if wholesale changes are even really necessary. I’ve gone on the record before with this: Virtually no one out there in the world of fandom has the knowledge to accurately judge what needs to be changed when it comes to player development and conditioning. That is not to say the “change it because it sucks” argument doesn’t hold water; it does and change needs to come. But I would rather see be fixed with a scalpel rather than a broadsword. Andy MacPhail, Showalter and Peter Angelos need to take a very close look at this system over the winter and begin the repairs.

Will MacPhail even be back? I know a month ago, I advocated keeping MacPhail for continuity’s sake. I still feel that constant changes in leadership and philosophy do more harm than good but I think MacPhail is as good as gone. The silence coming out of the warehouse is deafening and the Internet is starting to chatter with the possibilities of a new general manager in Baltimore. After this season, I don’t know how MacPhail could keep his job, or why he would even want to come back.

As summer turns to fall the Orioles will drag their beaten corpse across the finish line once again. We can bask in the warm glow of Mark Reynolds’ 30-plus home runs, the maturation of Adam Jones and the pleasant surprise that is J.J. Hardy. Matt Wieters is having the quietest .750-plus OPS season in history, and it is not out of the question that he could hit 20 homers this year. But at the end of the day, it is just another year that will end with far more questions than answers. And the Red Sox aren’t getting worse in 2012.

James Baker blogs about the Orioles at Oriole Post. His observations about the O’s appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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