Did the O’s let their enemies get strong on what they left behind?
Many people place blame here or there for the Orioles’ 14 consecutive losing seasons. The most common target among fans is the owner of the team, Peter G. Angelos. Without a doubt, there’s probably some fair criticism of ownership, as well as upper management over the years. However I would also submit that this franchise has had it’s share of bad luck as well. Certainly there’s little blame on ownership for injuries, skill atrophy, etc. Some would point to the likes of Mark Texeira and Prince Fielder and say that the Birds could be more active in free agency (and trades) to improve the club. Again, all fair criticisms…but remember a time when they were active?
The Orioles either traded for or signed Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff, Brady Anderson, Roberto Alomar, and a few others over time. (Note that not all of these came during Angelos’ tenure as owner.) Those seemed to work out pretty good. However the biggest splash that the Orioles made in the last 20 years in free agency was the 1998 signing of Albert Belle. In essence, Belle became a free agent after the 1998 season after the ChiSox refused to maintain a clause in his contract which mandated that he be one of the third highest paid players in baseball. The Birds swooped in and signed Belle to a five-year $65 million deal.
Say what you want about Belle and his approach to “society” for lack of a better term, but the guy was an A-List ballplayer without a doubt. He also started to have hip problems in the second year of his Orioles’ contract, and abruptly stopped playing. The Orioles however kept him on their 40-man roster for the final three years of the deal and continued to pay him so that they could collect insurance money on the contract. This of course was intended to protect the bottom line for Peter Angelos as the owner, which I might understand. (Belle officially retired after the term of the contract expired after the 2004 season.)
Since then, the O’s have been very hesitant to be part of free agent sweepstakes for players. In fact, agents such as Scott Boras have milked this fact so as to drive up the price of free agents for other teams. Perhaps more importantly, by continuing to pay Belle the O’s weren’t able to dedicate the amount of money to payroll and free agency as they otherwise might have been able to set aside. All of this coincides with the continuing rise of the NY Yankees in the AL East, as well as the Boston Red Sox. Again, the O’s have been used as fodder to ensure that teams such as NY/Boston paid top dollar for their players. Does Mark Texeira ring a belle – I mean – bell?
Both of these franchises are in direct competition with the Orioles. In fact, not only do the Orioles have the reputation of being cheap (perhaps due to being burned in the Belle deal), but many free agents have no urge to sign in Baltimore because they would have to face the likes of NY, Boston, and now Tampa. Combine that with the fact that both NY and Boston had much more lucrative TV deals well before the O’s had MASN, and suddenly you have some pretty stiff competition in the AL East.
Again, many people will ultimately blame the owner for this. Let me state for the record, there are some very fair points to that argument. However I’ll also say that it’s not Peter Angelos’ fault that baseball is unfairly slanted towards teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox in that there’s no salary cap. However what the Orioles can do is to do a better job of keeping their own talent. When Mike Mussina went to the Yankees it became painfully clear that the Orioles might be more concerned with protecting their bottom line in the interim as opposed to long term. However I’ll also say that since then very few “Oriole guys” have been signed away to other teams. Angelos made a huge commitment in signing Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis long term. So while the O’s haven’t really been in on free agents, they have held onto their own guys of late.
I suppose my point is that the rise of these two franchises and the fall of the Orioles might well go hand-in-hand. I might tend to agree that the Yankees and Red Sox were destined to become monsters anyways, however having the Orioles in their division didn’t hurt. The O’s have just completed another off season where they’ve done nothing in terms of free agency. However they are taking an avenue they’ve never tried. Whereas in the past they’ve assumed they could slug their way to success with aging stars such as Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro (the second time around), et al, this time they’re focusing on a little bit of power along with guys with higher OBP’s.
Incidentally, if Mr. Angelos is reading this (which I highly doubt), I would say that I recognize you got burned in the Belle situation. I truly do, and to that point I am sympathetic. However I would also submit that in no way was Albert Belle a bad signing by the team (aside from the injuries, which nobody could foresee at the time). The guy hit .297 his first year, and .281 in his second (20 fewer games due to injury), averaged 30 HR’s and 110 RBI over two seasons. If the O’s had the Albert Belle of back then (perhaps without the attitude) in their lineup now, they’d really be a force to be dealt with. The bottom line is that it didn’t work out I suppose, however taking a leap of faith on Belle was far from a bad move at the time.
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