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Among Fans, Optimism Currently Higher For Orioles Than Ravens

January 16, 2017
It's one of those conversations that didn't really strike me at first.

The more I contemplated it, the more reality sunk in.

For the first time in two decades, the Orioles may be in a better spot to succeed in the near future than their football-playing brethren, the Ravens.

Yet, that's not a slam-dunk pronouncement, which makes it a somewhat dicey time to be a pro sports fan in Charm City.

No matter which way you spin it, the Ravens are at a crossroads this offseason after an 8-8 campaign; this is the first time since 1998-99 they have had consecutive seasons in which they didn't post a winning record.

And, as the Ravens' roster was constructed heading into the first regular-season game of 2016, it was an old team -- one of the oldest in the NFL.

Joe Flacco is 32 and heading into his 10th season as a NFL starting quarterback. Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. has retired, and defensive cornerstone Terrell Suggs is 34.

Perhaps most concerning for the Ravens, the roster has a dearth of top-level, best-in-the-league talent. Consider the team's most impactful player -- as compared to the rosters of the rest of the NFL -- is kicker Justin Tucker. The Ravens are fortunate to have Tucker, of course, but when your kicker is arguably your best asset, there are some legitimate concerns.

Then there's this reality: Eight of the Ravens' 10 highest salary cap commitments are to players age 30 or older.

That's why this offseason is so important for the Ravens. There are plenty of difficult decisions to make that could change the direction of this team now and for the immediate future. A full rebuild isn't anticipated, but no one can predict now what the Ravens' roster will look like in September.

That's where the Orioles have a bit of an advantage -- for now. They have made the playoffs three of the past five seasons, and their nucleus is together for two more years. With the exception of starter Chris Tillman and, potentially, shortstop J.J. Hardy, the majority of the key Orioles is under contract through 2018.

And after 2018?

Well, that's not a pleasant image. Third baseman Manny Machado, closer Zach Britton, center fielder Adam Jones and set-up man Brad Brach, among others, can walk after 2018. Those are four players who have made the American League All-Star team at least once in the past two seasons. The contracts of manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette also expire after that season.

The Orioles cringe when it's written that their window of competitiveness is closing, but it sure doesn't appear to be wide open.

Concentrate on the current, however, and the Orioles at least appear to be solid for the upcoming season. They still have some obvious offensive holes to fill, and they are counting on a rotation that is uninspiring but potentially adequate with a touch of upside.

As the rosters sit now, you have to give the Orioles the edge for the near future. And the last time that was the case was probably when the Ravens came to Baltimore for their inaugural season in 1996.

That year, the Orioles lost to the New York Yankees and glove-in-hand fan Jeffrey Maier in the American League Championship Series. The Orioles had a star-studded roster that included Hall-of-Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Roberto Alomar, as well as Mike Mussina, Rafael Palmeiro and Brady Anderson. That group went wire-to-wire in the AL East, losing again in the 1997 ALCS, that time to the Cleveland Indians.

So, twice the Orioles were a step away from the World Series, while the Ravens were trying to find a new identity and shake the losing ways of the Cleveland Browns.

Baltimore had been without a NFL team since 1984, and though the city was eager to again embrace pro football, it clearly was a baseball town. Tremendous marketing by the Ravens and a self-inflicted implosion by the Orioles switched the script by about 1999, when the Ravens had their first non-losing season, and the Orioles were in the second of a 14-season drought of winless campaigns.

In 2000-01, the Ravens won their first Super Bowl, and it's fair to say the city's optimism officially rested with Baltimore's football birds for the next 16 years or so.

Even as the Orioles' renaissance began in 2012 with the first of three playoff appearances in five seasons, the Ravens flexed their muscles with their second Super Bowl trophy in February 2013. The Ravens, though, have won just one playoff game since. And they have failed to make the postseason three of the past four years (although they were a play or two away from hosting a playoff game this season). If the Ravens are an also-ran again next year, you can assume there will be wholesale changes. That's how the NFL works.

I recently asked readers in my Connolly's Tap Room blog at BaltimoreBaseball.com and on the site's Facebook page which franchise had the brighter, immediate future, and I'd say, based on talent alone, the overwhelming response was the Orioles.

However, it comes with this caveat: With the current contract and draft structure in the league, and its continual parity (some may say mediocrity), it's much easier to rebuild in the NFL than it is in Major League Baseball.

If you have signed a player to a bad contract in the NFL, cut him, take the salary cap hit and move on. In baseball, you are stuck with those lost salaries unless you can convince another team to absorb the financial damage.

If you have obvious holes in the NFL, draft well and you can fill those voids by the next season. In baseball, it usually takes several years before a draftee makes an impact in the big leagues.

And though the Ravens' draft reputation has been criticized recently, the 2016 class, which included offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley, defensive back Tavon Young and running back Kenneth Dixon, was certainly better-than-average. A couple more of those types of drafts, and the Ravens suddenly have an infusion of young talent. On the flip side, the Orioles' farm system has been oft-criticized by national experts as lacking in both depth and talent.

The bottom line is the crystal ball is cloudy. A few personnel decisions here or there could shift the balance of pro sports success in Baltimore to one side of the ledger or the other.

But, right now, it's a conversation worth having, and one that really wasn't compelling for the better part of two decades.

Issue 229: January 2017