Back in 1997, the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs for the second straight season, winning 98 games and the AL East title. They led the American League in attendance and outdrew the Yankees -- who were coming off their first World Series title since 1978 -- by more than 1.1 million fans.
It was an old team. But they re-signed Brady Anderson and Harold Baines as free agents. They signed Joe Carter and Doug Drabek. The '98 Orioles had the highest payroll in the majors, the last team before the Yankees to hold that honor. Every regular in the starting nine was 30 or older. Predictably, things fell apart. Anderson hit .236. Carter was awful. Cal Ripken was old. Drabek went 6-11 with a 7.29 ERA. The Orioles plunged to 79-83, the farm system was essentially in shambles and they haven't been over .500 since.
In recent seasons, the Orioles were finally starting to develop some young players. Nick Markakis reached the majors in 2006 and hit .291 as a rookie. The next season, he hit .300 with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs as a 23-year-old. Before the 2008 season, the Orioles acquired center fielder Adam Jones and pitching prospect Chris Tillman from the Mariners for Erik Bedard. Meanwhile, that summer 2007 No. 1 pick Matt Wieters was tearing up the minors, hitting .355 with power and walks. In June, Brian Matusz was the fourth overall selection in the draft. He'd reach the majors a year later.
That was going to be the foundation: Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Tillman and Matusz. Throw in veterans like Brian Roberts and Jeremy Guthrie and the Orioles looked strong up the middle with a potentially solid rotation. Instead, the team has now lost 90-plus games six seasons in a row. Managers have come and gone. Attendance ranked 11th in the AL in 2011. New general manager Dan Duquette must rebuild in a lethal AL East.
But does he even have core to build around? Let's take a quick look at those five guys.
Nick Markakis: After his strong age-23 showing, he looked like a future star. His OPS+ was 121. Since 1980, other age-23 outfielders who posted an OPS+ in the range of 115 to 130 include Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson, Harold Baines, Rafael Palmeiro, Andruw Jones and Carl Crawford, to name a few. But Markakis didn't improve much. In 2009, his walk rate plummeted from 14.2 percent to 7.9 percent. One blog did a five-part series trying to analyze what happened. In 2011, at age 27, often a player's peak season, Markakis slugged a career-low .406. In January, he underwent surgery to repair abdominal muscles. He's still a good player who never misses a game; he just didn't turn into that 30-homer, 100-walk monster to anchor a lineup.
Matt Wieters: After tearing up the minors, Wieters was everyone's No. 1 prospect for 2009, a cross between Johnny Bench and Joe Mauer. Wieters has developed into one of the better catchers in the game and at 26 may yet improve with the bat. But based on his .262/.328/.450 line of 2011, Wieters appears to be more of a complementary hitter on a playoff team (albeit very valuable production for a catcher).
Chris Tillman: A tall, projectable Class A pitcher when the Orioles acquired him, he shot onto the prospect radar after a strong showing in Double-A in 2008 (154 strikeouts in 135.2 innings). But it hasn't clicked at the major league level (5.58 ERA in 36 starts). He's not 24 until April and still on the 40-man roster, but running out of chances.
Brian Matusz: He looked like a rotation after a strong rookie season in 2010 that included a 2.18 ERA over his final 11 starts. He had a nightmarish season in 2011, so awful I don't even want to print the numbers for fear of giving you night sweats. He had a strained intercostal muscle in spring training and his velocity was down after returning. Maybe it was the injury, maybe it was an odd mental block. Roy Halladay had such a season early in his career and turned out pretty good. But we have no idea what to expect from Matusz moving forward.
Adam Jones: In his ESPN Insider piece comparing Yoenis Cespedes to other young center fielders, Kevin Goldstein wrote, "Jones' 2011 campaign generated considerable buzz in the industry. 'He's just starting to take steps forward,' said an American League scout.'" Really? He posted a .785 OPS; in 2009, he posted a .792 OPS. His walk rate was 4.5 percent as a rookie in 2008; it was 4.7 percent last year. His extra-base hit percentage was basically the same as its always been. Defensively, he rates from subjective "highlight-reel spectacular" to more objective "the defensive metrics don't think he's all that." I'm not a scout, but statistically, he's been the same player for three years. Regardless, here's the bottom line: A guy with a .319 on-base percentage cannot be the centerpiece of your lineup.
So where does all leave this Duquette?
Maybe I've been a little cruel to the guys above; don't get me wrong, there are a lot of positives in that group. I just don't think Wieters, Jones and Markakis are going to be the three best players on Baltimore's next playoff team. Jones, in particular, is a risky bet: He has two years left until free agency, so Duquette will have to make a decision on signing him to a long-term contract. (Read more about Jones' future here from Camden Depot's Jon Shepherd.) The Orioles aren't saddled with too many bad contracts, so that's another positive: Markakis is signed through 2014 for $43 million -- not a bargain but not a team-killer; Roberts still has two years at $10 million per year; shortstop J.J. Hardy is signed for three more years at a reasonable $7.4 million per season.
While Duquette will place a bigger emphasis on international scouting (where the Orioles have lagged behind for years), they do have two prime prospects already in pitcher Dylan Bundy and shortstop Manny Machado, two of the top 10 or 15 prospects in baseball. I suspect that on the next Orioles playoff team those two will have to be the best players. A top three of Bundy, Machado and Wieters with second-line players like Markakis, Jones, Matusz and Zach Britton is a good starting point.
Now Duquette just has to figure out the rest.