• Jul

    Actions Speak Louder than Words (Part II)

    Big Time Free Agents? Nope!

    Since Andy MacPhail has taken over the Orioles, his biggest free agency signing has been the 2-year, $12 million contract for Michael Gonzalez. This signing was interesting for several reasons since it was done without an MRI. As anyone who knows the Orioles’ history of dealing with injuries is aware, Angelos was very skittish after the Xavier Hernandez debacle as well as the Albert Belle situation. On numerous occasions throughout the years, deals have been struck down by Angelos due to injury concerns. So the fact that Hernandez was signed without an MRI shows that MacPhail is truly in charge of the signings.

    "That's how Peter plays general manager," said Frank Wren in an interview with the NY Post. "He uses medical reasons to kill or change a deal if he doesn't like it."

    The one real test to see if MacPhail was interested in getting a mega-expensive free agent was in the 2008-09 offseason when All-Star first baseman and former Mt. St. Joseph star Mark Teixeira hit the open market. For years Orioles fans had drooled over bringing the hometown boy back to Baltimore. And with a severe need of power in the Orioles lineup, it seemed like a good fit. Unfortunately for Orioles fans, the Yankees wanted him as well. And as we know, if the Yankees want a player, they will get a player.

    The only real concern, though, was how MacPhail conducted negotiations. Multiple sources indicated that MacPhail offered Teixeira a seven year, $150 million contract and never budged or called the star to get his reaction to the offer. Sources indicated that MacPhail did not really want Teixeira due to his exorbitant price tag.

    "I have no interest in making Mark Teixeira look bad,” said MacPhail. “What's done is done. Who's to say he made the wrong decision? I don't think I would have done anything different. The offers that were publicized at the time were accurate and I think what I made clear was that we had more room. Not that it was going to be what he ended up getting."

    MacPhail insists that the idea that he was inflexible on his offer was incorrect, but it appears he was waiting for Teixeira to make the next move.

    "It wasn't that we were inflexible, a take-it-or-leave-it. We were like, ‘Here's what we have and we're prepared to go a little more.’ If he was serious in engaging us, that was his opportunity to do it, and he chose not to do it. They got a better deal elsewhere in a more competitive circumstance. Everybody acted in their own self-interest."

    Teixeira's contract was going to cost the Orioles around $21 million a year, so did MacPhail take that money and invest it back into the organization?

    "We ended up signing (Nick) Markakis and (Brian) Roberts for what was about $100 million, so that's where a portion of it went over the same period of time. We have made investments in our scouting and development over time, probably not to the degree that you would like to see, but we have definitely spent on facilities and on signing bonuses."

    So if I understand correctly, the $21 million went into signing two guys they would have needed to resign anyway. And does this suggest if Teixeira was signed they wouldn't be putting more money into scouting and development? I guess I don't see it as an either-or situation for this organization.

    In the end, it appears MacPhail was not very aggressive in pursuing Teixeira. And in the world of high-priced pampered athletes, that’s not going to get things done. Maybe Teixeira never was going to come to Baltimore—and as MacPhail said, he wasn’t going to give him what he got in New York anyway—but in the end, MacPhail’s deliberate negotiation tactics failed to land the big prize.

    No One Wants to Come Here?

    With the Orioles in last place and going on their 13th straight losing season while playing in the AL East, a lot of players don't want to come to Baltimore. It's especially hard to get a player who needs a rebound year to sign here when they’ve got to play Boston, New York, and Tampa 56 times a year instead of some patsies in other divisions where they have a better opportunity to pad their stats. For pitchers, Camden Yards still has a hitter's-park reputation, so that doesn’t help either. Is it MacPhail's fault that he's only signed a few mediocre mid-tier-level free agents? Do players avoid coming here?

    MacPhail believes that is part of the problem, but another reason is that buying expensive pitchers is not part of his plan.

    "It was better last year than my first year, but I think it's getting progressively better. I do think, frankly, that it exists to a degree. I think it's tougher for pitchers. If you are getting into the business of free agent pitching, it's fragile and expensive. If you are the Burnetts, Sabathias, the Becketts of recent past, Daisuke, the Pavanos of the past, I just think that's a market you stay out of. It's hard for us to get them and it's a really risky market. Not that there's not a lot of risk everywhere else. That's an area where you need to really develop your own. All you have to do is look at our board and see (Chris) Tillman, (Brad) Bergesen, (Jake) Arrieta, (Brian) Matusz in our rotation now. That's what we're trying to do."

    MacPhail's Changes

    So a valid question at this point is: What has MacPhail done in the last three years to improve the organization? Besides upping the amateur draft budget, he feels his computer systems and programs will pay off.

    "This didn't exist before I got here," MacPhail says as he shows Orioles Hangout a stapled stack of paper with stats on them. "This is a day's minor league report. It's a lot of pages about pitchers, velocities, and percentages. That comes through every day. I'm not the only one that (gets the report). It gets disseminated to about 10 or 12 different people (farm director, rovers, minor league managers). We have a new computer system that gives us the ability to chart things without us really charting them. The managers put in all the information so I can tell you which of our pitchers throws the greatest percentage of fastballs for strikes, which one of our pitchers throws the greatest percentage of first-pitch strikes, who can throw their curveball for a strike, what percentage of their repertoire are changeups. So really what you’ve got is a checks and balance."

    "The reason you do this is if you look at the list, and you have a highly thought of prospect that can't command his fastball, it's a red flag for me. What this will really do is generate questions, not just from me but from anyone else that gets it. We have enough guys going through our system so we try to get as complete a view on what we think of our players. This will happen occasionally like with a guy like Tillman. They'll breeze through the minor leagues. He'll throw a no-hitter and one-hitters but it's not going to play here because maybe they need to throw their third pitch more often. What they'll chase down there, they're not going to chase here. The strike zone is smaller up here. Sometimes they have to come up and got beat up a little bit and go back down and it's not about getting Durham out anymore. It's about throwing that third pitch as often as they need throw it."

    Despite all these reports, Tillman, David Hernandez, Jason Berken, Brian Matusz, Matt Wieters and to an extent Josh Bell have all struggled in their initial action of major league baseball. This goes back to the Orioles’ evaluation of their own prospects. For MacPhail, he doesn't see the value in talking up his prospects like the Atlanta Braves have done so well traditionally in order to up their possible trade value.

    "I'm not big on talking up our players. They have enough pressure to do what they’ve got to do (without having) to feel the weight of the world on them. There's a big prize out there for them. They're all within close proximity. They all know what's going on at different levels. When guys like Wieters got ballyhooed as the second coming, I think it makes the burden on them tougher for them. At the end of the day it's going to become pretty clear how many guys came up (and) contributed and how many didn't and how frequent a basis that you can compare it with what other clubs will get."

    MacPhail's Leadership Style

    The more sources you talk to, the more you understand that MacPhail has a very tight-knit group of people he discusses things with. If you are not in the circle of trust, you can expect to have little to do with the everyday operations. He currently does not have one person in his front office with GM or assistant GM experience. Some believe that former assistant Wayne Krivsky took a lateral transfer with the Mets due to not having as much responsibility with the Orioles as he would have liked. Sources have also indicated there may be a morale problem within the organization due to not having spelled-out responsibilities and it contributes to what some would refer to as his “deliberate way of doing business.”

    "I am deliberate, it's true,” MacPhail said. “I'm sure somebody feels excluded, but I would feel like I do delegate. I don't delegate to 100 different people. For example (professional scout) Bruce Kison will be in with Matt (Klentak), Ned (Rice), and Lee (MacPhail), and we will go through where we are two weeks from the deadline to make sure our pro scouts are where they should be based on the conversation I've had up to this point. With technology today you have access to so much more information, which to me means it's much more about check and balances."

    One has to wonder, though—with MacPhail working everything from improving International scouting and development, the trading deadlines, team injuries, internal roster management, and minor league development while overseeing all areas of the baseball operations—if having an experienced assistant GM with real responsibilities wouldn't help out. Although he has his “circle of trust” people, rebuilding this organization can’t be done by one man alone.

    So What About the Managerial Search?

    With the trading deadline coming up, the managerial search has slowed significantly. Some believe MacPhail's deliberate style and inability to delegate real responsibilities to his staff will cause a delay.  Others believe MacPhail wants a manager he can “control” and does not want anyone who will threaten his authority. MacPhail, though, sees the team playing better and doesn't see a need to rush to judgment and believes the media is making more of this then they should be.

    "They'll be critical of me because we have not declared on the manager yet. There's nothing worse you can do to the media then hanging something out there that's going to happen, one way or the other, whether Juan (Samuel) got full status or whether you bring someone in from external. Until they get here, it hangs out there and drives (the media) nuts. They want it done. But that's their time table, not mine. There are reasons that we take the approach that we have. Over the last three weeks the team has been playing a little over .500 and Juan is doing fine. There's no need (to make an immediate change). I'm a little concerned someone new comes in and they can't influence much and they get tarnished with the record. They're supposed to be able to start fresh. Of course the one thing is if you bring them in new, the advantage is they get a chance to make some of their own judgments on guys and make determinations."

    "I've never been one to really care about what other people's deadlines are. There are deadlines that mean something . July 31st (trading deadline) means something and we’ve got to get that done. August 15th or 16th (amateur draft signing deadline) means something.

    Once he makes a decision on the manager, will he allow his manager to pick his own coaches?

    "I think the GM gets veto power but that's about it. I'm not one for putting spies in there or telling them who their coaches have to be. Never have been.”

    Are There Any Changes Coming That Could Help the Orioles Level the Playing Field?

    "There has been more attention spent to realignment and the schedule, and I'm hopeful that some day that those issues will resolve themselves,” MacPhail said. “The unbalanced schedule probably doesn't quite have the same economic impact that it had initially. I think after a while people (would) rather see other teams come through. That's my opinion. Of course it’s in my own vested self-interest. Hopefully someday there will be some kind of modification to what we go through now. We just get hammered the third time through the American League East. It's been too much.  Here we are trying to get Matusz, Bergesen, Tillman, Arrieta, these young guys, and we stick them into the fray. It's always a tight race and we stick them into the fray and they're running on fumes. It's tough."

    Tight race? The Orioles have been getting killed by the American League East opponents pretty much from the get-go and I don’t know what tight race the Orioles have been in of late unless it’s the race for fourth place.

    Is It the Bottom Line or the Wins That Count?

    Probably the most damaging criticism leveled by multiple sources is that MacPhail is more concerned about his bottom line than winning ball games. One source had this to say: "If it came down to winning or getting a good bottom line, he's going to take the bottom line." MacPhail was obviously upset over this criticism.

    "I would have no idea how anyone could venture that as an opinion because the bottom line is not that pretty either. I think the one thing that should be clear is the most important thing in my mind and in Peter's mind is righting the ship. It's hard to convince an 80-year old man at the time that your best avenue of doing this is trading Bedard and Tejada and going underground and buying these kids. In the past the preferred method was to sign the Bradfords, the Jamie Walkers, the Baezes, the Huffs, and Millars and trying to patch your way through it, and that's more expensive then doing what we’ve done by putting it back into the infrastructure (like) getting spring training straightened away, upgrading our computer system and medical areas and the new facility in the Dominican. To me, that was the path to more wins than losses. It's not the path to try and make the thing more financially feasible. That's going to happen when you start winning more games at this level."

    "It annoys me that someone would venture that. It could be their opinion based on the fact that our payroll is less then probably what it was, and they're welcome to their opinions, but calling it a source has to be an overstatement."

    Unfortunately, when your teams continue to lose like they did in Chicago and now in Baltimore, and you continue to get the top baseball job, people are going to wonder why.

    Actions Speak Louder than Words

    Even the sources believe that Mr. Angelos wants to win badly, but some believe he may have finally given up. He doesn't come to the games like he used to and with his advancing age and the continual failure of his club, it may have finally beaten him down. The Hangout requested an interview with Mr. Angelos for the article, but it was denied. It's unfortunate because it would have been interesting to hear his take on the vetoed trades, the lack of a Teixeira signing, and the current shape of the franchise.

    As for MacPhail, I think the piece stands by itself and I'll let you make your own decision on what's going on. Although the Orioles have taken some steps to improve their international scouting and development, they still don't have any presence in Venezuela or Colombia and their Dominican signings are still way behind their AL East rivals. MacPhail pointed towards their increase in Rule 4 amateur scouting expenditures and that's all well and good, but they are still being outspent by the Red Sox and when international dollars are accounted for they are still in the bottom of the division.

    The team is dead last in the standings and has been getting beat up by their division rivals (along with everyone else) the last few years. The Orioles have fewer scouts than their AL East counterparts on the pro and amateur sides, and they have the smallest payroll in the division when you take into consideration money owed to former players and money coming in from other teams to pay for contracts. The minor league system has one impact prospect in the upper level of the system in Zach Britton, and the young cavalry of Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Jake Arrieta has a combined for a 7-16 record with a 5.42 ERA (through 7/20). The "can't miss" Matt Wieters is currently on the disabled list but has put up an anemic .672 OPS this season. In other words, the core that MacPhail was counting on has mainly arrived, and the Orioles are the worst team in baseball.

    Over the years we’ve heard the Orioles talk the talk. But the facts remain quite simple. The Orioles have never invested in Latin America, they’ve signed one international free agent in the frail Koji Uehara, they have struggled to draft and develop impact major league players, and their payroll is in the lower half of baseball and lowest in the AL East when all things are considered. The team runs per game average of 3.59 is the second lowest in the American League while their 5.34 R/G allowed is worst in the AL. Their .981 fielding percentage is tied for the second-worst in the American League. In other words, the team can’t hit, pitch, or field.

    As for putting their eggs into the scouting and development basket, that remains a risky proposition. Out of Scouting  Director Joe Jordan’s first-round selections,  Brandon Snyder (2005) has struggled to hit above AA, Billy Rowell (2006 and drafted ahead of Tim Lincecum) is a bust, Matt Wieters (2007) and Brian Matusz (2008) have struggled this season in the major leagues, and Matt Hobgood (2009) has struggled with weight issues and velocity and although it’s too early to make any real opinions on him, he has not lived up to expectations of the fifth overall selection so far. David Hernandez and Jason Berken have become solid relievers and Garrett Olson netted the Orioles Felix Pie. This is not to slam Joe Jordan or his scouts, but it does show that putting most of your eggs in the amateur draft arena is a risky situation at best.

    According to Forbes magazine the Orioles are worth $376 million. Angelos bought the team for $173 million in 1993. MASN brings tens of millions of dollars a year to the Orioles who are profiting from Steven Strasburg’s popularity. It’s hard for anyone to believe the bottom line is not good.

    As for me, I'll stand by my motto for life, "Actions Speak

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Tony Pente

Tony has owned and operated Orioles Hangout since 1996 and is well known for his knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles organization from top to bottom. He's a frequent guest on Baltimore-area sports radio stations and can be heard regularly on the 105.7 FM The Fan. His knowledge and contacts within the Orioles minor league system and the major league baseball scouting industry is unparalleled in the Baltimore media and is known as an expert on the Orioles prospects.