Wednesday, June 20, 2007

O's Ship is Sinking

The Orioles fired manager Sam Perlozzo Monday morning. I was surprised to see the move, but I was even more shocked to find the widespread criticism that the move brought. Criticism came from all angles, not just about Perlozzo being let go, but also for the horrible play by the Orioles this year and in recent years as well. Many of the players have been terrible, moves and decisions on signing players haven't gone very well, front office personnel have been questioned, and motivation and desire to win have been debated. Needless to say, from radio talk shows to ESPN's Baseball Tonight, the Orioles found themselves, even if for a couple days, back in the middle of the world of sports, but for all the wrong reasons.

As I said before, I was surprised by the move to fire Perlozzo. He may only be an average or an above average manager, but this team obviously has problems that even the best manager in the world couldn't fix. Some people say performance and attitude reflect leadership, but I never questioned whether or not Perlozzo wanted this team to win. After tough defeats, Perlozzo always looked mortified and legitimately embarrassed when his team had blown another winnable game. There's no doubt that he cared and wanted to ease the pain of fans.

I'm still not sure if the move was the right one. I wanted to wait a couple days to see what the Orioles were going to do before I rushed to a hasty judgment of yet another Orioles decision to let a manager go. The same points have been hit on in just about every debate on the situation that I've seen -- the Orioles offense has been very average, they don't hit any HRs, they have players like Gibbons and Patterson struggling this season, the bullpen has performed terribly, etc. All of these reasons have obviously led to the Orioles' current 29-41 record.

In spectacular ESPN fashion, some analysts and brilliant baseball minds even over-exaggerated the problem just to make the team's current struggles hurt even more. John Kruk of Baseball Tonight said something along the lines of, he'd accept any job if it was offered to him except a job with the Baltimore Orioles. Kruk's statements were surely a shot at the way Peter Angelos has run this team into the ground, but his words still hurt. No matter what people think, the Orioles really do have the talent to compete and at least compile a record near .500. Every year, though, there's a new problem that comes out of nowhere. If the lineup starts hitting, then the pitching will be terrible. And if the hitting and starting pitching are great for one day, then maybe the bullpen will blow another lead. The Orioles' bullpen was supposed to be the strongest part of this current team, and instead, it has been, by far, the worst part of another struggling season.

I'm going to be honest: Perlozzo was not my favorite coach. He always seemed a little intimidated or overmatched, but I never questioned his desire to want to break the Orioles' losing ways. He always stood up for the players though, which is great to see, but I don't believe the players felt pressured by him to play better and they never felt like they had to perform better to get more playing time. Jay Gibbons, for example, surely knows that he's been awful for the first part of this season. Many of the players probably do. But they never seemed to have any sense of urgency in standing up for their coach or taking most, if not all, of the blame for such a disappointing half season of baseball. I may be in the minority here, but if I was playing baseball and was guaranteed millions of dollars, I'd publicly admit to playing terribly if I was struggling and I would stand by my coach, especially if he was as good a guy as Perlozzo was.

After being fired, Perlozzo finally showed some of the fire that I wish he'd have shown while he was still coaching the Orioles. In an article for the Cumberland Times, Perlozzo began to fully express some of his opinions on why the team had been bad and why he really had no chance to succeed with the Orioles in the first place. He never felt comfortable with the people behind him, and he never felt like he had the full support of the front office.

Some of Perlozzo's best quotes in the story are as follows:

"I told them they should have stepped up and said, 'Sam Perlozzo is our manager.' And then if they want to fire me two days later, fine. Just resolve it. But they didn't. You don't do that to me... I told them I can go out and make every right move - which I believe I did - and still fail because we don't hit, or the bullpen breaks down, or whatever it may be."

"Every night, we're dealing with a one-run deficit, and we're scoring four runs, three runs, three runs, four runs... We score three runs in the first three innings and we're done for the night. You need to score more than four runs... When you can't score five runs playing in the American League East, you've got problems"

"Melvin Mora is hitting 40 points below his career average... Miggy doesn't hit home runs or drive in runs anymore. Huff just started hitting and he has four home runs... Kevin Millar has a high on-base percentage, but doesn't hit home runs. Do you want me to start him on the bases? Check the on-base percentage and the runs scored. It doesn't jibe. We need three hits to get him in. You want me to start running Kevin Millar, Jay Gibbons and Aubrey Huff?"

Perlozzo had more to say, and if you check the article, he was obviously angry at being fired so early when he felt there was much more work to do. I truly believe that if Perlozzo demonstrated this type of attitude and had the backing of the front office, he'd still have the job and the team may have performed a little better. But the Orioles, as usual, felt pressure from people on the outside and made another hasty decision.

The most important part of this whole dilemma, and what could possibly shape the team for years to come, is what occurs over the next few days. The Orioles have an immense interest in former Marlins manager Joe Girardi. They want him to coach the team, and he's their number one priority. So what's the problem? No one knows if he wants to even coach the team. And by firing Perlozzo with so few coaches available, let alone anyone who would even consider guiding this disoriented franchise, they've put all of their eggs in one basket. Anything less than inking Girardi will be viewed as a failure, and the team would again have an undetermined future.

Even though it never really seemed to matter who coached the team or what happened as far as which players were brought in to play where, I've always believed that over the past decade, the whole atmosphere and environment of the team has been just wrong. That issue starts at the top with Angelos, and it trickles down to every part of the organization. There isn't just one thing wrong that can simply be fixed just because a manager is fired. Perlozzo wasn't the problem; he just wasn't, by himself, the solution.

But like many Orioles fans, I'll never give up or stop believing that the team can't compete just because some analysts on TV or the radio say so. Remember those people who thought that signing Magglio Ordonez was a terrible move for the Detroit Tigers? How's that move looking right now? Like a steal. It doesn't matter who thinks certain moves are right; it only matters if the moves work and help a team win games.

The Orioles can build around some of their young players and develop another core of players to compliment them. I don't know who the O's will end up hiring, but as far as players on the field, these are the changes I'd make in the near future to help the team:

1) Build the offense around Nick Markakis. He's only 23 (he turns 24 in November) and he's already the team's most polished hitter. He plays hard and is a great right fielder with a tremendous arm.

2) Trade Miguel Tejada if possible. I don't know what the reasons are, but Tejada just isn't the same player that he used to be. By playing so many games in a row, he seems to just be tired sometimes, and that may have something to do with his lack of power. Either way, he doesn't seem like a long-term solution for the team, so they should try and trade him now and get what they can. I'd rather the Orioles play Bynum at SS for the short-term while developing other young position players like Billy Rowell. Also, trade Steve Trachsel while he still has some value. Some contending teams really need some starting pitching help, and the O's could get a nice player or two if they deal Trachsel while he still has decent numbers. (Just look how bad he was last night against the Padres -- time is running out.)

3) Try and trade for Mark Teixeira before the Yankees inevitably go after him. In this rare time when a star player actually wants to play for the Orioles, they need to get him on this team. No more combinations of Millar or Huff at 1st base -- Teixeira would fit nicely in an Orioles uniform. Also, I understand that the Rangers won't just give him away, but parting with someone like Daniel Cabrera and some younger players would not be a problem with me.

4) Try and do something with Corey Patterson, meaning, get rid of him if possible. I don't know what it is about Patterson, but he's probably the most frustrating player on this team. He is one of the fastest players in the league, and yet he's always trying to hit home runs. Whenever he reaches base, he can steal with ease. But he refuses to use his speed to his advantage, shorten his swing, and focus on hitting the ball on the ground or just hitting like drives. If Corey Patterson choked up on the bat and took the approach of, say, David Eckstein, he'd hit close to .300 and steal a ton of bases. I will never understand why he doesn't perform way better -- he obviously has the talent but is very stubborn.

5) Build the starting rotation around Erik Bedard, Jeremy Guthrie, and Adam Loewen. Keep developing the young arms in the minors to replace the artists formerly known as relievers in the Orioles bullpen. The bullpen can't be fixed quickly because of the huge salaries owed to these guys. They can't trade guys like Baez or Bradford right now, so they're just going to have to live with the signings. But guys like Olsen, Liz, Erbe, Doyne, and Hoey will probably be on the cusp of making the team in the near future, and change is on the way. It just can't happen right away.

These are just a few possible options that the Orioles can make, and their problems go way deeper than that. They need to change the team's image, and that's not something that happens over night. Changing the culture from a losing one to a winning one happens slowly. It can happen with a dominating win over a solid team or just with solid play and some come-from-behind wins. But I know one thing is for sure: the Orioles have the talent to compete, and guys like Sam Perlozzo shouldn't be solely blamed for a team's situation that's been going downhill for years.

The O's ship has been sinking, but it's not under water just yet. There's still time.


An extra thought after posting this entry:

The Orioles always seem like that guy from high school who would always care so deeply what people thought of him that he'd hurry and change his image constantly. One day he'd be wearing a certain type of clothing, or maybe he'd play a certain sport or play some game. Then in about a week, he had already changed his look and started trying to impress different people. Every few weeks this same thing would go on, and the kid never seemed comfortable with who he was, and more importantly, it wasn't working -- people still didn't like him anyway. No matter how mean that sounds, everyone knows someone who was like that, and that kid seems exactly like who the Orioles have become. They try and make moves that people outside in the baseball world will slightly nod their head at sometimes, but they won't stay consistent and pick a real sound belief on how to run the team. There is no magical secret on how to win games and develop a winning team. Different things work for different organizations.

Years ago, many people criticized Billy Beane for how he viewed the game of baseball and how he believed in running the Oakland A's. But he held firm in what he really thought and now the A's seem to compete every year without spending much money on marquee names. The Orioles need to develop an identity and stick with it. There's really no quick fix with the bad moves the team has made over the years. And that list is endless.

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