When he was officially introduced as Orioles president of baseball operations on June 20, 2007, MacPhail referenced the organization's young nucleus and spoke of baseball being cyclical in that "things can turn around a little quicker than some people might imagine."
But, for a slew of reasons, the Orioles' assumed ascent stalled, and what was supposed to be the beginning of a turnaround in 2010 -- following a painful rebuild -- became a season marred by a 2-16 start and the eventual dismissal of manager Dave Trembley.
"It is [harder]. The fact that Tampa has come on and Toronto has turned the page, it is a tall order," MacPhail said of the difference in the American League East since he has taken over. "[It's] not unachievable by any way, shape or form, as Tampa has shown, but it's tough."
And, in what has been his most trying season as a general manager -- a post he's held in several organizations since 1985 -- MacPhail will be faced with a significant challenge this winter as he prepares for a critical offseason.
At the top of this winter's list, which will be addressed when MacPhail and new manager Buck Showalter sit down with principal owner Peter Angelos after the season, is a middle-of-the-lineup bat.
"Easy to say, not so easy to do," said MacPhail, who gambled on free agent Garrett Atkins last December, only to release him for poor performance in early July.
"That [bat] is going to be our chief goal in the offseason. Wherever that position is, that's something we need to try to augment, because I think it would have a beneficial effect up and down the lineup for some of our existing guys."
Asked if he would take on another risky proposition like Atkins, who was signed to a one-year, $4 million deal including a club option for '11 despite declining power numbers, MacPhail said it will depend on the market.
"Our preference always is the more established guy," he said. "Sometimes you have to deal with what the market makes available to you. You have to take a gamble when that looks like your best option. Hopefully there will be options available that are less risk than that one was."
The organization will also try to add another veteran starter and a reliever to supplement the young nucleus of pitching, which has been grown substantially under MacPhail's "grow the arms, buy the bats" plan. Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton are all expected to compete for a spot in next spring's rotation, which will also include ace Jeremy Guthrie, along with several other arms the Orioles either acquire or decide to audition.
Showalter said on Friday that the organization will have discussions regarding starters-turned-relievers like David Hernandez and Jim Johnson, while long man Rick VandenHurk -- who will be out of options this spring -- also figures to get an extended look.
"I'm aware of some of the multiple ways of looking at those guys," Showalter said. "In a lot of cases, like where David and [Jason] Berken were, [the move] was primarily because of need and necessity as much as anything.
"We will see where we are, where they best provide depth and whether or not they fit into where we are next year, breaking camp."
Regardless of what the Orioles do within their current 40-man roster, MacPhail acknowledged that the organization needs to do a better job going forward in surrounding its growing young nucleus, all of whom struggled at one point or another this season.
"We had a mixed bag," MacPhail said of this year's five veteran additions, which included reliever Will Ohman, closer Michael Gonzalez, infielders Atkins and Miguel Tejada and starter Kevin Millwood, who was acquired in a trade with Texas last winter. Ohman and Tejada were dealt at the Trade Deadline while Millwood -- who will be one of the Orioles' seven free agents -- is unlikely to return.
The lack of positional depth in the Orioles' Minor League system -- which has improved under MacPhail but is still barren in certain areas of the upper affiliates -- also places an increased emphasis on adding six-year-free-agent-types to help bridge the gap at the Major League level and ensure more options when the O's have to dip down to Triple-A Norfolk.
"One of the issues this franchise has had and continues to have is a lack of depth to absorb the inevitable departures that you are going to have over the course of the year due to injury," said MacPhail. "We need to do better at being able to plug people in there and not take such a hit."
Showalter said Major League Baseball's decision to move up a team's exclusivity window for dealing with their own potential free agents -- from 15 days after the World Series to five -- "presents a different dynamic," and the Orioles end-of-season surge could benefit them in attracting and signing players quickly.
"I know Andy and I get calls and whatever," Showalter said of the free agent interest. "Some of them don't completely make you comfortable from an ethical standpoint, so you just don't return them. But there are [players] that have expressed interest. There is always something behind the scenes."
The Orioles' offseason picture will become clearer when MacPhail and Showalter meet with Angelos to discuss budgetary constraints, and similarly, the roster makeup will be effected by what moves are made, or not made, this winter. The team needs upgrades at the corner infield spots. And although much of what they do will hinge upon where they acquire the badly-needed power bat, they won't fill holes by rushing prospects.
"I don't think we are in the business of just giving away jobs," MacPhail said in reference to the readiness of position players like rookies Josh Bell and Brandon Snyder. "We have to have some indication that they are capable of contributing."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less