O's rebuilding plan slow but steady

O's rebuilding plan slow but steady

The Baltimore Orioles haven't had a winning season since 1997. They haven't been to the World Series since 1983.

To say that times have been rough at Camden Yards for more than 10 summers is putting it mildly. You can't even say they've been disappointing because except for a few bright spots along the way, hopes haven't been that high.

Nearly two years ago, Orioles owner Peter Angelos hired Andy MacPhail to steer this once-great franchise in a positive direction. In other words, MacPhail was charged with working the magic he used during celebrated stops with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs.

But as the Orioles began a six-game road trip to the West Coast on Monday night in Seattle, they were in last place in the tough American League East.

My first question to MacPhail was a fastball down the middle.

"Is [turning the franchise around] taking a lot longer than you thought?"

There's no hesitation.

"No, not really," MacPhail said. "We haven't really been at this two full seasons yet. I think we've made pretty good progress, considering. When I started, a clear strategy was laid out, which is that we're principally going to rely on player development and our scouting systems."

Referring to the departures of Erik Bedard, Miguel Tejada, et al via trade, MacPhail added: "We traded off some assets we thought were going to leave us in a couple of seasons anyway before we were prepared to contend. Those trades have been helpful, and the farm system has started to produce."

MacPhail, a boy wonder of sorts when he was in his 30s in Minnesota, produced World Series winners in 1987 and '91. Then in 1994, MacPhail moved to the Cubs, who were in the postseason twice before he left after 2006. Prior to that, the Cubs had been to the playoffs only twice in the previous 50 years.

Astute Baltimore fans who made a ticket to Camden Yards one of the most difficult in sports when the Orioles were winning welcomed MacPhail with renewed optimism.

MacPhail grew up in Baltimore when his father, Hall of Famer Lee MacPhail, was the Orioles' general manager (1958-65). Andy MacPhail knows the tradition of the O's and that the long-starved paying customers expect results. They've been growing restless.

Orioles fans might still be disappointed at this stage, but MacPhail refuses to sugar-coat the situation.

Dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox -- not to mention the Rays and Blue Jays -- the AL East is arguably the best division in the Major Leagues. The Yankees, for example, have a $201 million payroll. By comparison, the Orioles rank 23rd among the 30 Major League teams at $67.1 million.

"There are no shortcuts," MacPhail said. "We know to win in the AL East, we're going to have to be a very solid team. So far, we're pleased with the progress."

The Orioles just completed a 5-2 homestand, having won seven of their past 10 games entering Monday night. They're 16-13 at Camden Yards, but 7-15 on the road.

"One of the things that gets lost is that we were over .500 (46-43) outside the division last year and over .500 (13-12) outside this year," MacPhail said.

What MacPhail doesn't say is the Orioles were 22-50 against teams in the East, a record that led to a last-place finish -- 28 1/2 games behind the Rays, surprise AL champions a year ago.

The Rays reached the World Series last year -- before losing to the Phillies -- because of their young, hungry nucleus of homegrown players. They filled in the holes with veterans and created a storybook season.

MacPhail used that blueprint when his teams were winning in Minnesota and Chicago.

The philosophy is solid when the young players perform up to their credentials.

Plus, there's so much temptation to swerve off course.

Last December at the Winter Meetings, the Orioles made a $150 million offer to free-agent All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Yankees nabbed him by paying $30 million more.

Veteran baseball people tell me to pay close attention to the Orioles. In just a few years, their Minor League system has been rebuilt and is already producing. They've drafted well.

On Friday, catcher Matt Wieters, regarded by many as Baltimore's top prospect, was promoted to the Major Leagues. Wieters was the Orioles' No. 1 pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft and rocketed through the Minor Leagues.

"I've never been around a prospect with this much hype," said David Stockstill, Baltimore's director of player development.

There are more prospects, especially pitchers with outstanding pedigrees, in the pipeline -- ready to blossom.

"This isn't a secret formula," cautioned MacPhail. "We try to do the fundamentals well and understand that player development and scouting has to be very effective or the rest of it won't work. We cannot rely on trying to patchwork it with free agents. Our principal avenue of talent must come through the system.

"When Weiters arrived, it symbolized that reliance on our farm system more than in years past. We've had a lot of young players who've come up and done well. We've got a young dynamic center fielder in Adam Jones and a young Orioles product next to him in right field in Nick Markakis.

"I'm convinced the fans can see there is a significant foundation of talent that should be with the franchise for years to come. Plus, ownership made a commitment to Brian Roberts and Markakis, paying over $100 million."

MacPhail added a theory I wish more teams would subscribe to.

"Clearly, our philosophy -- and we make no secret about this -- is that we've got to grow the arms," MacPhail said. "We can buy the bats. You're not going to be able to buy pitching. It's expensive, it's fragile and tends to shy away from the American League East unless you really pay a huge premium. We're going to have to grow our own arms.

"But we're not one player away from winning American League East."

Not yet.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.