Orioles' moves of '07 shape future

O's moves of '07 shape future

Last winter, the Orioles held one eye toward the present. This winter, they're looking squarely toward the future.

Another frustrating season ate at the club all summer, as injuries and inconsistencies undermined Baltimore's chances to compete for a run at the postseason. By year's end, Sam Perlozzo was gone as manager, Miguel Tejada was out at shortstop and rumors swirled that the team's best pitcher, Erik Bedard, might be nearing the door, as well.

All of that marked a clear indication that the Orioles had firmly committed to rebuild. The previous generation of Orioles is now all but gone, with an exciting new breed of youngsters filtering their way into every part of the club.

How those new pieces jell in Baltimore will go a long way toward determining how far the team has come, and just how far it has left to go. Perhaps the Orioles aren't ready to compete with the league's best just yet, but they're certainly plowing forward as quickly as they can.

And with a little luck, that just may be quicker than anyone might imagine.

He was the face of the franchise for two decades and to this day remains the Orioles' most recognizable figure. So it was no surprise -- though certainly an honor -- when the Baseball Hall of Fame voted Cal Ripken Jr. into its ranks in January. Six months later, Ripken headed to Cooperstown, N.Y., for his induction. "Certainly, this is one of those moments where you reflect back on your whole life," he said.

The Orioles made a seemingly minor move when they claimed young right-hander Jeremy Guthrie off waivers and added him to the roster. But the transaction turned out to be anything but insignificant, as Guthrie went on to win seven games and post a 3.70 ERA in 175 1/3 innings with the O's.

Just two days before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to Spring Training, the Orioles lost starter Kris Benson to a serious right shoulder injury. Benson toyed with the idea of surgery throughout camp, eventually electing for it and missing the entire season. The same day Benson announced his injury, the Orioles signed another veteran, Steve Trachsel, to take his place.

Exactly two weeks after Perlozzo indicated that Jay Payton would be his regular left fielder, Payton strained his hamstring and began the season on the disabled list. But he would quickly recover and reclaim his job, hitting .256 in his first season as an Oriole.

The Orioles extended one of their most dynamic young players during Spring Training, inking second baseman Brian Roberts to a two-year extension worth more than $14 million. That came two months after the team also signed outfielder Aubrey Huff to a three-year deal worth $20 million.

Just before Payton's return, the Orioles suffered another loss when starter Jaret Wright experienced soreness in his right shoulder and headed to the DL. Wright's season ended that day, after only three starts -- all losses -- and a 6.97 ERA. Yet the move became something of a blessing, giving Guthrie a chance in the rotation, where he quickly began to flourish.

Three straight losses to open the schedule set the tone for the Orioles, who dropped near the bottom of the American League East and stayed there all year. Particularly heartbreaking was a game at Yankee Stadium on the first Saturday of the season, when closer Chris Ray served up a walk-off grand slam to Alex Rodriguez. "It's only the beginning of the season," fellow reliever Danys Baez said. "We're still making adjustments."

Dramatic wins gave the Orioles hope in May, as the team began to win with improved consistency -- even winning six straight to close out the month. First, outfielder Nick Markakis hit a walk-off single to lead the Orioles over the Indians on May 4. Then it was Huff's turn, launching a walk-off homer five days later to lead the team over the Rays. Another week later, the dramatics continued, when Payton hit a two-run double in the 11th inning to down the Nationals in Washington. "We're trying to get something going," Perlozzo said -- and indeed they were succeeding.

Not everything, however, went as planned in May. In the midst of a breakout season, lefty starter Adam Loewen suffered a stress fracture in his left elbow and ultimately missed the rest of the year. Loewen made only six starts, finishing with a perfect 2-0 record and 3.56 ERA in his second season as a full-time starter.

If May brought bits of bad news, June brought giant heaps of it. In the midst of a nine-game losing streak, the Orioles dismissed Perlozzo as manager and tabbed former bullpen coach Dave Trembley to take his place on an interim basis. "It was a tough homestand and a tough month, maybe some of the most horrific losses that this club has ever endured," said executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan.

Launch the 2007 Year in Review

The next day, the Orioles hired longtime baseball executive Andy MacPhail as their new president of baseball operations, further shaking up the team's leadership hierarchy.

On the field, things weren't any less volatile. Though the Orioles managed to stunt their losing streak, they absorbed an enormous blow on June 21 when Tejada was hit by a pitch that fractured his left wrist. The injury kept Tejada out for a month and ended his consecutive-games streak -- the longest active run in the Majors -- at 1,152. "I don't want it to end like this, but what can I say?" Tejada said. "There's nothing I can do."

First, Ray lost his closer's job. Then he lost more. Battling inconsistency all season, Ray went on the disabled list in late July with a bone spur in his elbow, and he eventually missed the rest of the year. That ended a difficult second season as the team's closer in which Ray saved only 16 of 20 attempts, posting a 4.43 ERA. Jamie Walker led a group of substitutes in his absence, though the O's wouldn't see many save opportunities the rest of the way.

Roberts, not Bedard, was Baltimore's representative on the AL All-Star team, though perhaps Bedard should have been given his due. The left-hander surged in July, finishing the month a perfect 5-0 with a 2.21 ERA. Against the Rangers, Bedard tied a club record with 15 strikeouts, and by month's end, he was among the front-runners to win the AL Cy Young Award. "I think this answers the question of whether he's a No. 1 or not," Trembley said. "He's No. 1 on this staff."

Already well out of playoff contention, the Orioles couldn't find any luck in August, when outfielder Jay Gibbons had surgery to repair a torn left shoulder. The bad news got worse when Bedard had to skip a start with a strained right oblique and wound up missing the rest of his breakout season. Bedard finished with a 13-5 record and a 3.16 ERA, and he was fourth in the Majors with 221 strikeouts, despite missing over an entire month of play.

Trembley's ability to improve the Orioles earned him respect, and then it earned him a job. In August, the Orioles gave Trembley a contract to manage in 2008, after he spent only two months with the interim tag. "I feel a whole lot more comfortable in a baseball uniform than I do in a suit and tie," Trembley said at his press conference.

With the team already looking squarely to the future, September callups meant a little more to the Orioles this season. One in particular -- infielder Luis Hernandez -- shined, hitting .290 and impressing with his defense. In doing so, Hernandez played his way into early consideration for a starting spot in 2008.

A shock hit Baltimore when reports leaked that Gibbons had allegedly bought shipments of performance-enhancing substances from October 2003-July 2005. Three months later, Major League Baseball suspended Gibbons for 15 games at the start of next season, and later in December, Gibbons, along with Roberts, would be named on former Sen. George Mitchell's investigation of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Changes were everywhere once the season drew to a close, beginning with vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette's resignation. By the end of the month, the Orioles had brought in a new pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, and a new first-base coach, John Shelby, to help round out Trembley's staff for next season.

Benson didn't help the Orioles this past summer, and the Orioles announced in November that he won't help them next summer, either. The team declined to exercise the option on Benson's contract for 2008, making him a free agent and ending a stint in Baltimore that produced only 11 wins in two years.

Dominating the Hot Stove were rumors that Bedard would be traded to a contender, as the Orioles began to look toward their future. Yet Bedard's age -- 29 heading into next season -- kept the Orioles confident that he could yet be a cornerstone of a winning staff, and that sparked an attempt to sign the young ace to a long-term contract extension.

An era ended when the Orioles dealt Tejada to the Astros for five players in a move that signaled a commitment toward rebuilding. In exchange for their star shortstop, the O's received outfielder Luke Scott, starters Troy Patton and Matt Albers, and two Minor Leaguers. "I don't think it's ever an easy thing to trade away a player of Miguel's stature," MacPhail said. "It clearly signals a change."

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.