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The Long Road to . . . Somewhere . . . Hopefully

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In the offseason of 2002-03, the Baltimore Orioles fortified their starting rotation with veteran additions. Well, that was how it was reported; "fortified [the] starting rotation," after all, is a generic, reporter's phrase best understood as "acquired some guys with names that people would sort of recall." And so the Orioles did. They added Rick Helling, who provided a bit of gravitas to the fore as a "former 20-game winner"---five years previously, of course. They also added Omar Daal, a veteran and "well-traveled" lefty who had bounced between clubs (three in the previous seasons) and fortunes (12-game loser; 16-game winner; 19-game loser---all in succession---before going 24-16 in '01-02). These two veterans were added to the mix to buttress a pitching staff led by the promising-but-unproven (Rodrigo Lopez, a breakout 15-game winner in '02) and the maddeningly-inconsistent (Sir Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson). A third veteran, sore-armed former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen, was being held in reserve as a middle reliever. Hence, Helling and Daal "fortified the starting rotation."

In reality, obviously, Helling and Daal did nothing of the sort. They combined to go 11-19 with an ERA of about six. Hentgen made his first of 22 starts in early May (pitching pretty well), but it was Ponson and Johnson who provided any semblance of stability, at least until Ponson was dealt to the Giants for young arms---the type of young arms, that is, who broke down instantly. In sum, Helling and Daal were a nice offseason cover story. I don't know anyone who considered them saviors, but I'm quite certain some fans and reporters considered them acceptable stopgaps---a sign, in an exercise of perpetual hope, that the Warehouse wasn't going to sit idly by and let the collapse of 2002 (4-32 from mid-August onward) repeat itself. Oh, nothing of the sort. Helling and Daal were gone from the rotation long before the end of the year (Helling aided Florida's stretch drive and postseason efforts out of the bullpen), and neither helped the Orioles in the present or, more importantly, in the long-term.

So, yes, they were a fine cover story, until the cover was blown---and the cover was blow because they were mere cannon fodder necessitated by a lack of organizational options. The Orioles had spent several years at this point crossing out young pitchers, who were either injured, or degraded in the club's eyes, or both (like Matt Riley). The O's literally weren't ready to try younger pitchers until 2004, and so they tried to patch things together in 2003.

The attempt largely failed. Baltimore went 71-91, both with and without Helling/Daal, finishing tenth in the American League in ERA. (The O's also finished tenth in runs scored.) In history's eyes, the O's might as well not have fielded a team in 2003. They accomplished that little.

* * * *

Why the history lesson? Or, if you prefer, why the rummaging through the recent past using the cynical eyes of this long-time fan of the Baltimore Orioles? Simply stated, because the Washington Nationals potentially face a similar problem in 2007. If you think about it, they're facing it now as well, in 2006.

The current rotation is the very definition of Nowheresville:

  • Ramon Ortiz (veteran back-ender/swing-man)
  • Tony Armas (failed prospect)
  • Pedro Astacio (veteran injury-risk stopgap)
  • Billy Traber (unestablished youngish lefty working back from arm woes)
  • Jason Bergmann (middle reliever starting only because he's available to start)
There's really nothing here; we all know that. Moreover, Ortiz is an upcoming free agent. So is Armas. So is Astacio. Bergmann is merely an emergency starter. The only individual worth considering---at least at this point in the analysis---is Traber. I offer that he is no more and no less than the Nats' version of Eric Dubose, who as of 2003 was also a former first round pick, also went under the knife, also was on the long road to recovery with another organization.

Dubose made 17 appearances and 10 starts for the O's in 2003, basically mopping up in the wake of Helling/Daal's failure and the Ponson trade. Essentially, Dubose represented the 2003 wave of young pitching for the Orioles; in truth, the effect was more like tossing a penny in the fountain at a shopping mall. The wave itself came the following season, when the O's entrusted significant innings to pitchers with better stuff and, they hoped, better futures. Erik Bedard is starting the pan out; Daniel Cabrera probably never will; Riley never really had a chance.

The problem for next year's Nats is that there is no next wave. Yes, the hope is that John Patterson will be back to his full capabilities and emerge as a dependable front-of-the-rotation starter. Beyond Patterson, however, there's little on the immediate horizon. Mike Hinckley almost certainly will not be Erik Bedard. Neither of the other two arms at Potomac (Everts and Ballester) appears a realistic hope to jump into the fire like Cabrera did in '04. The two acquisitions for Livan Hernandez, Mock and Chico, climb straight to the top of the organizational chart, but would have to surprise like crazy next spring to be viewed as '07 options. Mike O'Connor (sort of a poor man's Dubose/Traber, I suppose) and Shawn Hill will both be coming off injury; suspicion must start to exist that Hill has purchased a membership in the Chronic Arm Disease club. There are a couple of guys currently at New Orleans who might be seen as replacement level-type options.

The organizational options are few, in other words.

Where the team must go from here logically proceeds along two tracks:

  • Which of the veterans are worth keeping?
  • What kind of outside help is worth getting?
I'll offer right now that it might be worth the effort to offer Ramon Ortiz arbitration. No, it's not because he's a great pitcher; referring to him as any kind of "ace" of the staff is the same kind of thing as saying those guys for the '03 O's were going to "fortify the starting rotation." Truly, not every time has to have an "ace," and there's no sense referring to Ortiz as more than he has in reality been: the most dependable of a bad lot. But Ortiz is is dependable; he does eat some innings. And there's a single reason why a guy can provide value if he eats innings, even if he pitches, say, ten percent worse than the league average: the options behind him aren't as reliable and aren't as good as just ten percent worse than league average. In other words, Ortiz could be what he's been this year---a band-aid, a tourniquet, or whatever you want to call him. I have no idea what the market for Ortiz will be this offseason, but he's the one veteran starter worth keeping.

The other veterans---Armas and Astacio, as well as Ryan Drese and Brian Lawrence---are probably better off left for dead. The one exception might be Astacio. I wouldn't offer him arbitration, which would mean that he couldn't re-sign with the club until May 1. But I can't imagine an exceedingly huge market for his services, and it could be that he'll be needed to jump in the fray at some point. I use "fray" advisedly, as there's little chance his worn-down right arm makes any deeper commitment to him worthwhile.

Turning to the second track, who out there would be worth getting? Well, Banks of the Anacostia (Version 2.0---check out the new design!) is reviewing the potential options as we speak. I commend you to check this out. As for me, I'll probably move on to that topic fairly soon, but for the time being, I'll offer two general and likely arbitrary principles: 1) Especially with pitching, expect no better than a 33% yield on free agents (if you target three, you will at best come away with one); 2) If you're looking for low-risk, high-reward guys, ensure the risk actually is low; 3) To the extent possible, view the potential additions as investments within a larger organizational plan.

To wit: 1) If the Nats are eyeing B.J. Kim, Jeff Suppan, and John Thomson, they should view these pursuits through the prism that they'll achieve only one catch; thus, they should plan accordingly. (To be more clear, they may well come away with two, but they shouldn't rely on that expectation.) 2) If they view Randy Wolf as a low-risk, high-reward type of lefty reclamation project, they should not bid on his services so aggressively that he is no longer considered low-risk. 3) If they view Vicente Padilla as a rotation anchor on the first true Nats contender, they should bid for his services accordingly; if not, then they should not outbid their expectations for him.

The bottom line is that someone (or someones) will be pitching for the Nats next season. That much, of course, is assured. It may well be that there is no choice but to enlist the services of a couple of Helling/Daal stopgaps. If there's no choice, then there's no choice. (I haven't explored trading options, because I've no clue at this point how that could play out.) It would likely be pretty ugly, but that's why good pitching, pitching, pitching is so important, right?