July 2009: In Need of a Horse
No, this is not yet another column on the dire straits of Maryland's horse racing industry. Actually, this is a column about the not-so-dire straits of Orioles baseball and a way to get better quickly, albeit expensively.
But, there is a horse involved. And the horse in question is the big-time pitcher that is the missing piece of the puzzle. Andy MacPhail's mantra has rightly been to develop the arms and buy the bats -- and the heavy lifting is almost over. But, in order to truly become a team others fear, the O’s have to have a pitcher who can give 200-plus innings and pitch the team a solid chance to win every fifth day.
As this plea is made for throwing caution to the wind and investing mightily in the arm the team needs, my mind wandered back to the offseason after the 1976 season and the most cautionary tale in club history when it comes to signing pitchers to long term deals.
It was the first year of true free agency and the Orioles got crushed like nobody else: losing Reggie Jackson, after his one five-month season in Baltimore; second baseman Bobby Grich; and 20-game winner Wayne Garland, who received a 10-year, $2.3-million contract.
Both Jackson and Grich went on to be as great as they'd had been with or without the Orioles. But Garland was different, because he was a pitcher. He had gone 20-7 in 1976 but was only able to muster a 28-48 record for Cleveland and was let go five years into his 10-year deal.
Though that was a full 17 years before Peter Angelos dreamt of owning his hometown team, it may be the one story to shape the Orioles' philosophy on long-term free-agent contracts for pitchers.
There were the signings of Rick Sutcliffe, Jimmy Key, Pat Hentgen and even the 1995 high-priced signing of Kevin Brown to a one-year contract. But for the most part, the Birds have dabbled in cheap, disposable and not very good free agents the likes of Omar Daal, Jose Mercedes, Pat Rapp, Rodrigo Lopez, Russ Ortiz and Steve Trachsel.
Clearly, big-time pitching help is on the way from the O's farm system. Fans know the names, repeated on talk-shows like an ad for a law firm: Tillman, Arrieta, Hernandez, Matusz & Hobgood.
Of those five -- eight if you throw in Brad Bergesen, Jamie Guthrie and Troy Patton -- if two or three are proven winners by 2011, it will be the breakthrough the Orioles have been waiting for. By 2012, one or two may even be ready to take over the mantle of being a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Why put off until tomorrow what you can do next year -- win?
Without scanning deep into the potential free agent list for this coming offseason, one pitcher above all others as a horse – Angels’ 6-foot-6 right-hander John Lackey.
After 12 consecutive years of waiting until next year, this team could actually be pretty good in 2010, so why not opt to be really good or even great?
Lackey has exceeded the 200-inning threshold four times in his career, and he would match up favorably against CC Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander or Roy Halladay.
While the MacPhail mantra sounds good, the truth is, with Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Matt Wieters, Brian Roberts, Adam Jones and Luke Scott, the majority of the O’s positional lineup is in place. And they could still easily sign Aubrey Huff to a reasonable two-year extension.
How much is the front office planning to spend on the bats that would exclude the dollars for a big-time pitcher?
Lackey's $14-15 million a year price tag sounds crazy, but how many years of hope turning sour by late May can the fans take before the O's credibility is too low to truly allow the fan base an elixir of hope? Lackey could be the expensive bridge to some desperately needed, good and consistent, starting pitching in Birdland.
Issue 139: July 2009