On the heels of a Spring Training filled with optimism and a slew of fourth-place finish predictions in the tough American League East, plenty went wrong for the O's during the first half of this season. And now, Baltimore will try to avoid being tagged with a franchise-worst label that has been owned by the 107-loss 1988 team.
For all the disappointment in the first half, the second leg of Baltimore's grueling 162-game schedule won't be short on intrigue. Who will the Orioles hire as their permanent successor to previous manager Dave Trembley in a position occupied by interim manager Juan Samuel since June 4? How will president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail -- in the third year of his rebuilding makeover -- improve a team that is expected to be right in the thick of things come the Trade Deadline on July 31?
Much of that last question hinges on whether the O's young core can grow into the players that fans and the organization thought they could be. Speaking at the news conference announcing Trembley's dismissal and Samuel's temporary takeover, MacPhail used words like "disappointing" and "distressing" to describe an underperforming group that includes position players like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold.
Coming off Achilles surgery in September, Reimold was hitting .205 before the organization sent him to Triple-A Norfolk in mid-May. Jones was a Gold Glove winner and All-Star selection last year and was hitting .326 with a .526 slugging percentage through the first 55 games of 2009. Conversely, he entered that same point this season hitting .245 with a .382 slugging mark. Wieters got off to a slow start following his highly anticipated callup last year, but he was expected to build on a final month that included a .333 batting average with four homers and 17 RBIs. Instead, the switch-hitting catcher posted a .236 average through the team's first 55 games and has hovered around that mark since.
Orioles Midseason Awards
|MVP||Ty Wigginton||Wigginton is having a career year and carried the Orioles' offense in the early part of the year.|
|Top Reliever||Jason Berken||Berken is among the American League leaders in ERA in his first year out of the bullpen.|
|Rookie||Brian Matusz||Just 23, Matusz had some growing pains, but has shown flashes of brilliance that has kept the Orioles eager for the future.|
"That's an excuse: We're young, we are inexperienced," Jones said. "No. We have all gotten here, to the Major Leagues, we are all talented. We have to feed off each other, pick each other up. It's going to get better before it gets worse. It can't get worse."
The O's spent most of the first half sitting sitting in last place in the AL in runs scored, RBIs and walks. Right fielder Nick Markakis made waves in mid-June when he called out the offensive approach of his teammates to the Baltimore Sun, telling the paper, "Sometimes, guys are going up there and it looks like they have no idea what they're doing." Markakis also met with principal owner Peter Angelos to discuss the state of the team and made it clear that he wants to be around to help right the ship.
"We have some holes on the team," said Markakis, who signed a six-year, $66.1 million extension in January 2009. "It's no secret. We know where we need to get better. I think that should be the focal point going forward from here."
The injury-riddled Orioles will be bolstered by the return of outfielder Felix Pie, who missed nearly the entire first half and rejoined the team in the week prior to the Midsummer Classic.
"We had a lot of hope for Felix Pie [this spring]," Samuel said. "We hoped he was going to be one of our good offensive players this year and many, many years to come."
Closer Michael Gonzalez is also expected back shortly after the break and will look to return to the pitcher he was in Atlanta -- a lights-out lefty who earned himself a two-year, $12 million deal in Baltimore this offseason. The Orioles gambled on free agent Garrett Atkins, who was designated for assignment and granted his release, and veteran pitcher Kevin Millwood -- acquired in a trade from Texas -- who started strong this season, but has been in an alarming funk and hit the DL on July 6.
Funk, in fact, aptly describes the team's defense in the final weeks leading up to the break. Without second baseman Brian Roberts -- whose return is uncertain, given a series of setbacks in rehabbing a herniated disc in his lower back -- the Orioles have used All-Star Ty Wigginton and Julio Lugo at second base. But with Luke Scott on the disabled list, and Atkins no longer on the team, Wigginton has moved to first and is part of a defense that includes converted shortstop Miguel Tejada at third base and Cesar Izturis -- who is the only infielder not playing out of position -- at shortstop.
"We definitely need to get better," Samuel said. "Even though during the last [homestand] we won some games, we did not play good defense. We have to pick it up. We need to do all those little things if we're going to compete in this division and win some ballgames."
Samuel -- who doesn't know how long he will be at the helm -- has taken the stance that anything he can do to improve the Orioles' energy and effort is a good thing. While MacPhail has said that he will take Samuel under consideration for manager, he lacks the one quality MacPhail has made it clear he wants for Trembley's successor: experience.
MacPhahil has interviewed Bobby Valentine (who later withdrew his name), ex-Indians skipper Eric Wedge, MASN broadcaster Rick Dempsey and former Rangers and Yankees manager Buck Showalter, who is now an analyst at ESPN. Several reports have given the edge to Showalter, but a man as shrewd as MacPhail would never publicly tip his hand. Given the stage the Orioles are at in their rebuilding process, the O's new manager will be faced with a team at a critical juncture. And one that hopes to at least start the process of turning the corner in the season's second half.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less