Orioles still chasing .500

The last time the Orioles made it to the playoffs, it was 1997. They fell two wins short of going to the World Series, beaten by the Indians. Since then, well, let’s just say it’s been a rough 13 seasons.

Craig Calcaterra, responding to a Keith Law ripping of the Orioles’ moves this winter, has some dissenting thoughts:

I’ve been asked about the Orioles offseason a lot. My standard answer is that while I still have a hard time seeing them finish in anything but last place due to how brutal the division is, I do think they have improved themselves and will be a better team this year. They could win 80 games, which is pretty spiffy compared to what happened last year. As Steve Melewski reports, my friend Keith Law isn’t as ho-hum about it as I am….

I would agree with Keith that the incremental improvements the O’s made this winter aren’t the things long-term plans are made of. But that’s only bad if the moves foreclose the possibility of making the sorts of changes that do fit in a sound long term plan. In the meantime, there is some value to making the team into one that fans who watch 100 games a year can better stomach than the version they’ve watched the past few years. Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds aren’t going to be a part of the next contending Orioles team, but they are far more easy to stomach than the guys they’ve trotted out recently.

And more importantly, they aren’t preventing that next contending Orioles team from coming together.

Ya, about that next contending Orioles team, when is it coming?

They haven’t been a .500 team in a single season since 1997. Their closest attempt came in 1998—way back when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were all the rage—when they finished four games below .500, in the season after they won 98 games. That’s a 19 game plummet. This is frankly startling. Why? Because they have not won even half their games in 13 seasons; they’ve placed third once, fourth nine times and fifth three times. Also, there’s no end in sight, which we can’t really say for some other franchises.

Take the Royals, for example. The Royals have been truly dreadful for something like forever. Now they haven’t even so much as made the playoffs since 1985, but they did win the World Series that year. Also, they have been better than .500 in seven separate seasons since. Recently, they’ve struggled to even stay above a .400 winning percentage, but by doing so they’ve amassed the best farm system in the major leagues… by a lot. And the cherry on top: they play in the AL Central, not the AL East.

Let’s take the Pirates, too, another stunning example of baseball ineptitude. In 1990, 1991 and 1992 they won the NL East each season behind the efforts of Barry Bonds, but unfortunately also lost the NLCS each time often in heartbreaking fashion. When Bonds left to fulfill his destiny in San Francisco in 1993, so too went the wins. Since then: no postseason. None. Their place in baseball resembles that of the Orioles, if a bit longer. Except for one key fact: they play in the NL Central, not the AL East.

Let’s pretend you do need a refresher on the AL East. First, let’s get into some financials. Last year, the Yankees opened with a payroll upwards of $206 million. The Red Sox began at more than $162 million. Baltimore was third at about $81 million, Tampa Bay fourth at $71million and Toronto the caboose with $62 million. That’s a $589 million dollar division (and rising)

Take my word for it—you can check if you must—on the payrolls for the rest of baseball. This is what you can do: You can take the two bottom feeding teams in the AL East, Tampa and Toronto, throw them into the AL Central, and the total payroll will be nearly identical to the current AL East (Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Toronto will make up $589).

You can also do this: Take Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay twice, throw them into the AL West and their payroll will be identical to the current AL East. Simply put, the financial wherewithal in the AL East is gargantuan. This says absolutely nothing about the division’s smarts, which are considerable.

The Tampa Bay Rays have emerged from the ashes due to the brilliance that is the mind of their executive, Andrew Friedman. And although they lost a robust crop of free agents this offseason, most notably Carl Crawford, they’ve still got more than a fighting chance at the division in 2011. What’s more, their farm system is the consensus second best in baseball, and depending on who or how many players Kansas City graduates in the next year or so, I expect theys might be back atop baseball in terms of future talent given their status as draft pick gluttons in the fruitful 2011 amateur draft.

Even the Toronto Blue Jays seem to be on the up and up. Their relatively new GM, Alex Anthopoulos, just managed to dump the entire contract of Vernon Wells onto the doorstep of the Anaheim Angels. Now he’s either extremely lucky, knows black magic, or is one of the smarter men on earth. The jury is still out. I think it goes without saying—I’ll say it here anyway, though—that Toronto has some pretty good mojo going right now. Jose Bautista did just blast upwards of 50 home runs, out of nowhere, after all.

We know about the Yankees and Red Sox… I think.

As for Baltimore, the Orioles spend half their time in a great yard, in a great part of the country and in a large market. It just doesn’t seem to matter, though. Should they try to put a product on the field in 2011 that their fans can “better stomach?” Is that what they are resigned to now?

Craig calls the division “brutal,” as many have, but I don’t think that’s going far enough. The Rays have not only competed but excelled by being highly intelligent. The Jays seem like they might be on their way. The Bombers and Sawx aren’t going anywhere. The Orioles? I don’t know. Maybe this is just baseball’s example of the survival of the fittest. I just can’t help but think the O’s are a minnow in a pool of great whites, and if Bud Selig and Major League Baseball couldn’t do something, anything, to help them.

The Rays have found a way to compete recently. The Jays show promise and might soon. But how many teams can we really expect to pull that off, to perennially compete in that division? Let’s suppose they all do. The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, in my humble opinion, are right now the best three teams in baseball. And should Baltimore and Toronto miraculously pull themselves up by their boot straps, motivated by their competition, and find a way to have some semblance of a perennial contender, then what? I’ll tell you what. Then we have a division with five of the very best teams in baseball, and each season only two of them (at most) will make the playoffs.

Which brings me to a question: Life isn’t fair, but should baseball be?

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  1. rbt said...

    If you believe, as most do, that the AL East is the best division in baseball, and you believe that the O’s are the fifth best team in that division, it’s impossible to believe that they can play .500 baseball.  Based on the number of times divisional opponents face each other in the age of the unbalanced schedule, to have that kind of substantial improvement would have to come at the cost of one or more of the other teams in the division.  If the Orioles rise up, some AL East division rival will fall.

    Look at it this way:  Do you know how many times in the divisional era the last place team in any divison has played .500 ball?  Exactly zero.

  2. Vin said...

    The one hope for the O’s – and the Jays, for that matter – is that the Rays really can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing forever. Sure, they’ve still got a great farm system, and will probably be competitive for the next few years or so, but it is highly likely that sooner or later they will screw up (because sooner or later everyone screws up) and, with their financial disadvantages, they can’t paper over mistakes like the big market teams, especially the Yankees.

    So, basically, if I’m the O’s or the Jays, I’m anxiously awaiting the opportunity for the new third banana to rise when the Rays falter. Of course, you can’t really predict that, but it’s their best hope. And then they can have a run at being the team that competes and gets into the playoffs when the evil empires have off-years.

    In the meantime, what’s wrong with trying to field a team that is respectable, so long as you are not spending too much in money or prospects? I think sometimes people can take the ‘success cycle’ a little too far. I mean, yeah, signing Jayson Werth to a megadeal to get you to 75 wins, or trading prospects for Matt Morris, is insanely stupid. But there’s nothing so horrible about signing Derrek Lee or Vlad Guerrero to cheap, one-year deals. You’ve still got to play the games, and maybe you can trade them at the deadline. I’d guess you could argue that you’ll wind up with a lower draft slot, but draft slots matter less in baseball than in other sports – you can overcome that if you draft intelligently and are willing to shell out good bonuses.

  3. Paapfly said...

    Thanks for commenting. A couple thoughts: a fair point on the .500 baseball note within the division, but the fact remains that they could all have extremely talented teams, even the best teams in the AL, and their winning percentage or place in the standings would suffer but it wouldn’t say a thing about their roster or how good they are relative to the rest of the league. That’s the point. Regardless of how good the AL East is each season, a minimum of 60% of the teams is headed home early. A rise of one and fall of the other in the standings doesn’t necessarily reflect a rise and fall in talent relative the balance of the AL(though this is likekly the typical way it manifests itself).

    I have no problem with the O’s chasing respectability. At the same time, don’t you wonder how depressing it might be to be a fan waiting around for the Yankees, Sawx and Rays to falter? The A’s did, and honestly it seems inevitable to some degree. But even if one does, you’re still up against it with the other two. If two do, you’re up against it with one and vying for the division or Wild Card.

    It’s an interesting discussion, glad you both decided to chime in.

  4. John said...

    The system is already “not fair,” if you ask me. I believe Toronto could have made the playoffs a couple of times in the last five years, if there was a balanced schedule (instead of 57 games a year against the Yankees, Sox and Rays) and the teams with the four best records in the AL made it.

    What they should do is just get rid of the divisions, period. No more AL East, West or Central. Everyone plays everyone else the same number of times. The top four teams make the playoffs, with home field to the higher seed. No more Yankees/Red Sox excuses for the Jays and Orioles; the ‘Evil Empires’ can win 110 games apiece and there’s still two playoff spots available.

  5. Vin said...

    Thanks for the response, Rory. I don’t think you can really put the Yankees, Sox and Rays in the same category, though.

    The Yankees are in a class by themselves. They have so much money that they could basically screw up over and over again, and still buy their way into contention. Maybe they could have a lone .500-ish season here or there, but it’s hard to imagine them sinking any lower than that, even if they woke up tomorrow and decided to hire everyone the Mets just got rid of.

    The Red Sox are more like a typical big market team, in that they have a lot of leeway but it’s not foolproof. The ship could sink. But it would take a very long series of very, very bad mistakes, and it’s hard to see that coming from Theo & Co.

    The Rays, though probably the best-run team in baseball, operate on a razor-thin margin. Even Billy Beane’s “sh*t” stopped working after awhile, and he didn’t have to deal with the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays make a few bad decisions, miss on some big draft picks, see a handful of high-risk, high-reward signings go the wrong way, and, poof, they’re in fourth place. It’s pretty much guaranteed to happen sooner or later. This, plus a “bad” (read: 87-win) season from the big two, is the Jays’ and Orioles’ opportunity. And, you’re right, it is depressing.

  6. BringBackTriandos said...

    It is mathematically and theoretically possible for all the AL East teams to finish above .500, though that tight a race (I don’t think they’re there yet) would probably leave the AL East without a wildcard team. To win 90 games each, all they’d have to do is split the games within the division (36 wins) and win, on average, 60% of games outside the division. Considering that no team in the AL Central or AL West had a winning record against the AL East last year, the second half of the equation might be easier to achieve than the first part. I’m willing to go with two divisions in each of the AL and NL but with a more balanced schedule and two wild cards.

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