When news broke that the Orioles were on the verge of signing Vladimir Guerrero as their DH last week, many scratched their heads on the move. That includes Dan Hennessey, who wrote a fine article in this space earlier this week.
After all, Guerrero is 35 years old and joining a team that lost 96 games last season and one that will struggle to reach .500 in 2011 in the AL (B)east. Not only that, but Guerrero's signing pushes incumbent DH Luke Scott to left field, which pushes Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold to the bench, if not Triple-A.
But if you look at the bigger picture, it starts to make a little more sense why the O's brought Guerrero in.
So why are the Orioles making these moves?
Well, one could argue the team doesn't feel that any of the youngsters are ready to contribute over a full season. They could also have an eye on these players fetching value back at the trade deadline or via free-agent compensation. Oh, and the ESPN Stats & Info blog points out that the Orioles posted the fourth-worst slugging percentage in baseball, and the worst mark in the franchise since 1988. Vlad can help in that category. Those are real, valid -- and likely -- possibilities, but there's something else at play here as well.
The Orioles are in the unenviable position of being the cellar-dwelling team in the AL East. If their path to the top wasn't already hard enough, the strong play of Toronto last season, its strong offseason, plus the ability to function as a big-market team has made it even tougher for Baltimore to compete.
Players notice that. Baltimore has tried for years to lure superstars to its team, but it's simply not happening. These free-agent veterans the Orioles have been signing? Their options were so limited, they were forced to choose Baltimore. None of them -- with the possible exception of Gregg -- had many options.
Across the Beltway, Washington has been in a similar pickle and openly admitted to having to overpay Jayson Werth to entice him to the nation's capital. The Nationals feel they are beginning their window of opportunity after seeing an influx of young players into the team, and that's why they brought Werth in. Grumble all you want about how wildly overpaid he was -- and I'll grumble along with you -- but players have absolutely sat up and taken notice. The Nationals are suddenly a more appealing destination than before.
The Orioles are a team on the rise. Their centerpieces -- Adam Jones, Brian Matusz, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and soon Zach Britton -- are all young and in the major leagues. The time to contend is now, while all these players are blossoming and are under team control. The Orioles have done nothing but supplement these players with their moves this offseason. And suddenly, this is a team that could legitimately compete for a playoff berth -- if they weren't in the AL East, that is.
What these veteran players will do is add wins to the Orioles -- and also cause other players to take notice. You can't help but notice the name Vladimir Guerrero. Or Derrek Lee. And while J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds are lesser-known names, they're also notable. They will all help Baltimore take the next step forward. What if these veterans raise Baltimore's profile enough that the O's are able to sign someone like Prince Fielder next season? Baltimore will be looking to make a big play, just like the Nationals, because it is and will be time to take that next major step forward. Just like the Tigers leading up to their 2006 AL pennant.
Yeah, Detroit probably did overpay for Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez & Co. back then, but how many players were willing to come to a club that had just lost 119 games? If the Tigers hadn't decided to open the checkbook and overpay to have these players come to town, there's no 2006 AL pennant. And you could argue that the team still wouldn't be over .500.
At some point, an aggressive step forward has to be taken, otherwise it's going to be more of the same no matter how hard you try to build from within. Then the fans will just keep disappearing from the park no matter how much you push how exciting Felix Pie can be. And before you know it, these disappearing fans cause a slash in the budget, which leads to even more dominoes falling. There's a lot more to the game than just playing time on the field.
It's too easy for us pundits to sit back here and scream that the Orioles just missed a chance for Felix Pie to get 200 extra at-bats. It's not as easy to run a team, notice a window of opportunity and figure out just how the heck to open that window a little more.
Evan Brunell runs the SweetSpot Red Sox blog at Fire Brand of the American League.