Death of the Orioles?

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I grew up in Baltimore, so naturally I gravitated towards the Orioles when it came time to root for a baseball team. I had just turned five when they won their last World Series, but for majority of my life the team really hasn’t been all that good. There were a couple of seasons in the mid 1990s where the team was competitive, but thanks to Jeffrey Maier and a few bad breaks, nothing significant ever became of those seasons.

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Mark Teixeira

Now, with the news that Mark Teixeira is signing with the Yankees, one has to ask the question if the Orioles are done as a franchise. Granted they’ve have a decade of losing seasons, something that is only paralleled in recent history by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Is the Teixeira signing really anything different than the norm for O’s fans and the franchise?

I believe that for Oriole fans Teixeira represented a ray of light. A Maryland native with family still in the area, Teixeira often talked about playing for the club he grew up rooting for. Truthfully, it seemed more delusion than realism for Teixeira to sign with Baltimore, but the team had a desperate need for a first baseman and was flush with cash after setting up a regional sports network (MASN) and settling a dispute with Major League Baseball over the relocation of the Washington Nationals. Plus they could really use a face for the franchise. Teixeira was the one Grade “A” free agent the team legitimately had a chance to sign. He was the ray of hope, a symbol that team still had what it took to grab a big name free agent.

His choice to go else where just seems like the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Orioles. Not only because it disenfranchises fans, but the effect on the current regime and players. For example, instead the club seems destined to waste more money on has-beens and never-weres. Do they really need another Jay Gibbons or David Segui type deal?

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Nick Markakis

I’ll grant you the current Orioles team isn’t without hope. They have one of the game’s best young player in Nick Markakis, another solid youngster with Adam Jones, and one of the game’s top prospects in Matt Wieters. That’s not mentioning other good players like second baseman Brian Roberts or Silver Slugger winner Aubrey Huff. The cubbard isn’t barren. There’s also a decent farm system stocked with pitchers. But there remain enormous holes to fill at the big league level and free agents seemed scared off from Baltimore like its a leper colony.

Let’s face it, the Orioles face a real uphill battle. Making the playoffs in baseball is harder than in any other team sport. Only four teams per league make the cut, and that means a maximum of two teams per division. With the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East, that’s not an easy task. There seems to be a definite glass ceiling effect here.

The Yankees have been mismanaged for much of this decade, but thanks to a hefty payroll have managed to make the playoffs in all but one of those years. Money can often cover for one’s mistakes. Now that they’ve reloaded with guys like Texeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett, they again looks like a playoff squad. And if they ever manage to parlay their huge financial advantage into their farm system (something they horribly neglected in the early part of this decade), this franchise could get downright scary. We’re already seeing the first wave on the new Yankee prospects like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. This team will never really be out of the running with their finances. Even in a “down” year in 2008, they still won 89 games, significantly more than any Orioles team in recent memory.

As for the Red Sox, they’ve won two of the past five World Series titles and continue to add talent, both through a rich farm system and via free agent acquisition. Sign a J.D. Drew or a Daisuke Matsuzaka, watch a Dustin Pedroia or Jon Papelbon develop from within, and trade for a Jason Bay. This might be the best run franchise in the sport, and they’re backed by a financial surplus surpassed only by the Yankees. There’s no reason this team can’t be good for a long time to come as well.

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Adam Jones

That’s two huge obstacles that any team would have to deal with, but we haven’t gotten to the Tampa Bay Rays or Toronto Blue Jays yet. The Rays managed to assembled an unparalleled amount of young talent and won the AL pennant last season. Although they will face financial difficulties in the coming years retaining all their players, their farm system should support the team for a good five years before there’s a possibility of the team not being a contender. And the Blue Jays have averaged over 85 wins the past three years.

For the Orioles to even have a chance at the playoffs, they’ll have to beat three of these teams. Beating even two of them seems like a remote possibility.

Now you might point out that even the Rays managed to dig out the cellar and do well. So why can’t the Orioles do the same? I suppose anything is possible, but that would require the Orioles to be smarter than these other teams. To make consistently smart moves. Truthfully, I don’t see that happening. Not only because the Orioles management has been generally horrid over the last decade, but the Rays and Red Sox are run by very smart people. And the Yanks can buy their way out of mistakes if they aren’t smart enough. How do you compete with that?

With Teixeira spurning the Orioles, the team now faces the problem of how to even retain its own players. Huff and Roberts are free agents and Markakis is only three years away from free agency. Would you want to stay and play for a perennial loser? By the time some of the current crop of Orioles prospects reach the majors, the big names may have already left.

If the Orioles didn’t play in the AL East, they wouldn’t have this problem. In any other division they at least have the chance of playing well in the right year and making the playoffs. If they played in a sport where more teams made the playoffs, they’d even have a shot. But they don’t. They seem to be in the perfect storm of circumstances for them to continue to lose, year after year.

In this modern era of sports, has any franchise ever had less to hope for, year after year? Even the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Clippers at least have a chance of succeeding. More than half the teams may the playoffs in basketball and the NFL can have instant turnarounds like with this year’s Miami Dolphins. But for the Orioles there seems to be little hope and you wonder if this team will go the way of the Montreal Expos and start having 5000 people show up at a home game. It’d be a shame for the once glorious franchise with one of baseball’s crown jewels of modern era ballparks. People may forget this franchise was very strong from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, wining three World Series titles along the way. But the reality of the situation seems bleak.

I’m not suggesting the Orioles give up. I know they will at least try and field a competitive team. But I’m beginning to wonder if this team will ever be good. In this era of sports, what happens to a team that has no hope?