Critical Mass in Charm City

Photo Credit: Keith Allison | Flickr

by: Rich Daniels

The Baltimore Orioles are enduring one of the most difficult seasons in their history. 

Over 40 games under .500 is all anyone needs to realize what a rough year this has been. 

It's unusual for the Orioles to draw less than two million fans to Camden Yards in a season, the last time being 2011. This season, however, the Birds are barely over a million fans in late July and only the most prolific dose of old-time "Orioles Magic" would remedy the attendance challenge.

The only thing more worrisome than the team's performance on the field are the clouds gathering over the once proud franchise.

As a 25-year resident of a town midway between Washington DC and Baltimore, I was able to witness some of the glory days of the Orioles. I sat in box seats behind home plate for the third game ever played at Camden Yards. The epic World Series against the Pirates in 1979 was my first taste of watching a team I felt a connection with going for it all.

The Orioles returned to the World Series and became champions in 1983. Cal Ripken, Jr's entire career including his setting the Iron Man record. Earl Weaver, Wild Bill Hagey, Memorial Stadium, Eddie Murray, Brady Anderson, play-by-play from Chuck Thompson, then John Miller, then Mel Proctor...all of that and more.

It was a great place to be a baseball fan! 

Famed Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos put together an investment group that included author Tom Clancy, film director Barry Levinson and tennis star Pam Shriver to buy the Orioles in 1993. 

The team has had returns to glory under Angelos' leadership and in recent years earned two Wild Card berths (2012 & 2016) and an American League East Division title in 2014. 

Those successes seem far away now as the team has quickly declined to 75 wins in 2017 and the disastrous campaign so far this year. 

The Orioles now find themselves in the painful position of a team that has done what it had to do to be a contender and must now reap what they've sown. Trading prospects for veterans to keep the team competitive along with mediocre drafting and development in the minors has left the team with a lowly rated farm system.

Bleacher Report rated the Orioles farm system 25th among the 30 franchises. SB Nation ranking them 23rd and offering a 24th ranking pretty much creates a consensus. With the farm system lean free agency can be a viable solution.

However, signings haven't panned out for years as players like Alex Cobb, Mark Trumbo, and Andrew Cashner have been underwhelming. And those contracts aren't even close to the most worrisome deal on the books for Baltimore.

First baseman Chris Davis hit 126 home runs from 2013 to 2015 and fans wanted "Crush" locked in for the Orioles for the foreseeable future.

There was some hesitation from the front office due to Davis' hitting .196 in 2014. The team relented, however, and signed the big Texan to a 7-year, $161 million contract prior to the 2016 season. Not only has Davis' productivity spiraled down to horrible levels since (.156 Avg., 11 HR, 31 RBI so far this year), this contract makes Davis the Oriole version of Bobby Bonilla.

The contract includes deferred payments of $3.5 million each year from 2023 to 2032 and annual payments of $1.4 million from 2033 to 2037. Do the math and figure what age you'll be when the Orioles finally get out from under Davis' deal. 

Crushing contracts, underperformance, and a farm system with few answers to the team's needs is the formula delivering the Orioles to their current status. 

A status further complicated by the contracts of Manager Buck Showalter and General Manager Dan Duquette expiring at the end of the season.

Furthermore, the team's lease at Camden Yards is done after the 2021 season and, although the team holds an exclusive option for the following five seasons, resolution of that situation will require critical time and energy.

All these factors are converging to a point of critical mass for the organization, one that could send the franchise in any direction.

The Orioles front office hierarchy has always been a bit of a blurred picture once looking beyond Peter Angelos. He has been an active, hands-on owner in the past derided at times by fans for his refusal to spend. Angelos is 88 now and understandably experiencing health issues.

His two sons, John and Lou, have been involved in team operations for many years and have been assuming noticeably increasing levels of operational control. John Angelos is officially the team's Executive Vice President and Chief Operation Officer of MASN, the broadcast network that televises the team's games. He has centered his efforts on the organization's business operations.

Lou Angelos is designated as the Team's Ownership Representative and has become an integral part of baseball operations. Add in Brady Anderson as the Vice President of Baseball Operations and you have the team that will take the Orioles into the critical time just before them.

There are signs that there is finally a resolve to rebuild the roster, a course staunchly resisted in the past. 

Manny Machado was traded for five minor leaguers and Zach Britton was dealt for three more. Reliever Brad Brach was also traded for international slot money from the Braves.

Players like Adam Jones, Kevin Gausman, and Jonathan Schoop could be moved for more young players before Tuesday's non-waiver trading deadline. Trumbo, Darren O'Day, and Mychal Givens are candidates to move before the end of August.

Moves an organization serious about starting over would make. Moves that would be made not knowing who might be there to continue the process after the World Series.

Duquette has operated mostly with one hand tied behind his back by upper management producing mixed results. 

Showalter has a reputation of being brilliant while wearing thin on those he works with. 

Peter Angelos is likely unable to continue as the highly involved, near meddling owner he has been. The Angelos brothers face a level of responsibility they've craved yet never exercised before. And Brady Anderson walks a tightrope of wishing to move into positions of great responsibility while knowing he has ownership making the decisions of where he will serve. 

The Orioles find themselves with uncertainty in the front office, poor performance on the field and a great need to restock the organization with talent both in uniforms and suits.

The next few weeks will tell what players will head into the future as Orioles. Who will be making the decisions after that will be decided in November prior to the winter meetings? Baltimore could become the home of the next young, uber-smart executive in baseball like Theo Epstein in Chicago or Mark Shapiro in Cleveland. It could also be the next hiring of an old-school baseball insider that will help a still learning upper management team reach their potential.

It'll be interesting to watch as a new era of the Orioles forms.

How it happens and who makes it so are only the first few steps of the rare opportunity we baseball fans have to watch an organization do a total rebuild from rookie ball all the way up to the general manager's office. 

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