MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Showalter has Orioles on right track

Bodley: Showalter has Orioles on right track

Ask Andy MacPhail if this has been his most productive offseason since becoming the Orioles' president of baseball operations in 2007, and there's hesitation on the phone.

"Yes, but I think you have to include the last third of the 2010 season," he finally says. "[Owner] Peter Angelos and I felt it was important to try and sustain that level and do what we could to carry that over to this season."

What MacPhail has done is rebuild the infield by acquiring third baseman Mark Reynolds from the Diamondbacks, shortstop J. J. Hardy from the Twins and veteran free-agent first baseman Derrek Lee.

MacPhail also re-signed closer Koji Uehara and then made his biggest noise of the winter last week, getting free-agent designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero.

Is this enough to make the Orioles a legitimate contender in the American League East?

Maybe, but probably not.

Going up against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays is a Herculean, if not impossible, task. The Red Sox are loaded -- already being projected as the AL pennant winner, the Yankees are the Yankees, and with their young pitching plus the addition of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, the Rays cannot be counted out.

"Tampa Bay showed us last year you don't have to have a payroll that's $150 million plus," says MacPhail. "That's a good model for us to follow."

Only time will tell, but I believe the Orioles are finally headed in the right direction. A .500 season would be an enormous improvement.

It's about time for the Orioles to halt their depressing freefall to oblivion.

MacPhail, 57, was just barely in elementary school when he tagged along behind his father, Lee, the Orioles' general manager from 1958-65. That's when the foundation for this once-great franchise was being constructed.

Baltimore has not had a winning season since 1997, when the Orioles won the division title -- that's 13 consecutive losing seasons. In fact, the O's haven't had more than 70 victories in the last four years. They were dead last in the AL East in 2010, finishing 30 games behind champion Tampa Bay.

Camden Yards, a baseball palace crammed with fans during the glory years, has watched attendance steadily plummet. Last year, only four teams in the AL drew fewer customers than the Orioles' 1,733,019.

"It is a great franchise and a great venue," argues MacPhail. "I grew up here, I like everything about the area. It's been a labor of love.

"Our goal this offseason was to do everything we could to sustain the improvement we demonstrated over the last third of 2010. We feel very confident that that is what we've been able to do."

Talk about the steady offseason stream of new players all you want, but the move MacPhail made with the biggest impact was hiring Buck Showalter as manager on Aug. 2.

The success the Orioles had in the final third of the season -- in which MacPhail refers to -- directly coincided with Showalter's arrival.

Consider:

• Only the Twins (35-21) had a better record in the AL than the Orioles' 34-23 after Showalter took over. His 34 wins in 57 games were more than previous managers Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel (32) compiled in 105 games.

• The pitching staff's ERA pre-Showalter was over 5.50, but fell to 3.54 in the last 57 games. Just the A's (3.23) and Angels (3.40) were better. In Showalter's 57 games, the Orioles got 36 quality starts from their pitchers.

Getting Showalter, MacPhail says, was a coup.

"We knew there were going to be a lot of managerial changes, so one of the reasons we acted when we did was to get in the front of the line for Buck," MacPhail says. "Looking back, though, I think he picked us as much as we picked him. He liked our young roster and felt he could imprint his view of the baseball world on that, as opposed to a bunch of guys who had long-term contracts and were up in age."

Veterans Hardy and Reynolds add power to the lineup, and their experience will greatly help the youth on the team.

But MacPhail's final piece, 35-year-old former AL MVP Award winner Guerrero, gives Baltimore a cleanup hitter who batted .300 with 29 homers and 115 RBIs with the pennant-winning Rangers in 2010. He's a perfect addition for the Orioles.

"The way we see our lineup right now is we really don't see a weakness, one through nine," says MacPhail. "That's what it takes to compete in the American League East."

Angelos gave MacPhail the green light to add Guerrero's one-year, $8 million contract that pushes the team's payroll to over $90 million.

"It's definitely, hands down the best lineup since I've been here," right fielder Nick Markakis told MLB.com. "You look at our lineup and as much depth as we have, we've got to have the the deepest lineup on a team in all of baseball."

Guerrero's arrival also means Luke Scott, who had a career season, batting .284 with 27 homers and 72 RBIs last year, will shift from DH to left field.

"Luke had a good year in 2010, and I think people underestimate his ability to play the outfield," says MacPhail. "He's solid with everything he gets to and is a hard worker. He'll do fine."

If their young pitching (Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, et al) continues to mature, 2011 could be the year the Orioles finally put those 13 losing seasons behind.

"I don't want to set limitations," says Showalter. "We just want to do things right and play the game with effort and see where it takes us."

And who knows? A division title might be in their future.

Someday.

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