Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ownership inaction spurs Orioles success

            Winning is an easy concept to grasp, but in the MLB it can be a hard concept to put into practice. For example, the Baltimore Orioles clinched their first winning season in 14 years and with some luck the Pittsburg Pirates will have their first winning season in 19 years. Many reasons exist why some teams succeed and fail, from injuries, to payroll, to ballpark factors. When it comes to the Orioles, the 800-pound gorilla that best explains their futility is owner Peter Angelos. As an Orioles fan for most of my life I have seen the demise of the Orioles from postseason contenders in the 1990’s to AL East doormats in the 2000’s. It grew so bleak that I took to telling anyone who would listen that the Orioles were an owner away from competing again. I may have been too hasty, what we really needed was an owner who would let his hired staff do what they do best, compile a roster and modify as needed to build both a contender and a farm system capable of supporting it. The Boston Red Sox offer a counter example that may help explain why they sit in last place in the AL East.  
            Owners can make life a challenge or a joy for any organization based on their whims or level of interest. George Steinbrenner was famous for throwing money at every player he wanted to see in pinstripes with results that often paid off, or could at least be covered with more money. Not all teams have the luxury of paying even more money for mistakes, but owners are always involved when big contracts are contemplated.
Before the Rays truly started churning out quality pitchers like a Pez dispenser or the Moneyball mentality took root in Oakland, a small market owner in Baltimore tried his own solution without success. Following the disappointing 1998 season, the Orioles owner demanded an impact bat and gave free agent Albert Belle a then record deal (5 years and $65 million). Belle played well his first season, but spent considerable time on the disabled list his second year and a degenerative hip issue forced him to retire before the third year of his contract. Undaunted, Angelos continued to spend on big name free agent players, preferring to spend millions on one player than fill the increasing holes in the team as a whole. Among the big name players brought in where Rafael Palmerio, who would end up serving a 10 day suspension for PED use; Javy Lopez as a past his prime catcher; and Sammy Sosa who left his power in Chicago. This trend continued into last season with Vladimir Guerrero who continued to hit for average, but his 13 home runs were his lowest total since his rookie season.
            Compounding the Orioles problems was Angelos’ quick trigger finger when it comes to his front office and managerial personnel. Dan Duquette is the 8th general manger hired by Peter Angelos since he acquired the team in 1993 and Buck Showalter the 9th manager. Both are respected baseball men with proven track records for quickly turning teams into contenders. High volume turnover affects the farm system as GMs will turn over talent that does not fit their desired direction for the team. One result has been an abysmal track record with starting pitching development even with several top draft picks. Angelos has played a hand in these problems as he historically has insisted on retaining a measure of control in the day to day baseball operations. In fact, Tony LaCava declined the GM job prior to Duquette last fall due to concerns over his real amount of control.  However, since Showalter has arrived in late July 2010 we have heard much less from Angelos and even adding Vlad was done late in the offseason on a minimal contract. This base has allowed Duquette to orchestrate moves without Angelos over his shoulder and several savvy moves paying dividends. The result is about to pay off in a winning season and the increasing possibility of a playoff appearance.   
            Ownership manipulation can pay off or it can cripple a GM and their ability to put a winning team together. This season the active manipulation by owners has backfired in nearly every situation. Detroit paid a king’s ransom for a Prince, yet currently sits two games back in the AL Central. Jeff Loria bilked Miami out of a new stadium and then dumped salary as soon as things turned South. Larry Lucchino has torpedoed the Red Sox since insisting on the offseason hiring of Bobby Valentine. Detroit’s situation has been explained as an aging owner who really wants to see a winner before he dies, fair enough, it is his money and I wish him the best. Loria has been milking the Marlins for every dollar since he purchased the team and his actions, unfortunately, do not come as a complete shock. Lucchino, however, begs a closer examination.
            The Red Sox were undoubtedly one of the top teams of the early 2000’s and competent personnel decisions played a strong part in the John Henry ownership era. They took over a team compiled, coincidently, by Dan Duquette (1994-2002). After missing the playoffs their first year with GM Mike Port they brought in Theo Epstein. Two world series victories and a string of playoff appearances resulted in a model franchise that appeared to have the talent and the payroll both in the front office and on the field to compete for years to come. One of their staples, especially early on, was an ability to let again veterans go rather than overpay for diminishing skills. With the continuity in the front office, several core pieces developed through the farm system, including Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz. Epstein appeared to have the confidence of the ownership in his personnel decisions including signing John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to large, some might say absurd, contracts.
Yet in late 2011 as Epstein left for the Cubs and Ben Cherington, his former right hand man, was promoted to GM owner John Henry came out and said, “Larry Lucchino runs the Red Sox.” Cherington was immediately undermined on his managerial choice with Lucchino and eventually the rest of the ownership group insisting on Bobby Valentine. However, they gave Valentine only a two-year deal, hardly a vote of confidence, and he was forced to accept a coaching staff largely in place rather than supply his own. Neither of these actions indicated a plan that sound baseball minds would support, but rather an overbearing owner who got his way and then insisted others make it work. The result has been a dismal season marred with in fighting and roster turnover and a third consecutive dark October.
Unlike Baltimore, the Red Sox are not a small market team and with the payroll they dumped on the Dodgers they should be able to rebound fairly quickly. Ownership involvement is not in and of itself a bad thing, but sometimes it is best to rely on the people you hire to do their job. As a long-suffering Orioles fan, it is refreshing to see Angelos exercising restraint and enjoying the fruits of his labors.