I was in Washington, D.C. last week for the annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention and headed to Baltimore for the Orioles-Red Sox game Friday night. Checking out Camden Yards for the first time was a lot of fun, although it was sort of sad that Red Sox fans represented about two-thirds of the sellout crowd.
David Ortiz simply walking onto the field for pregame warmups got a far bigger ovation than either of the Orioles' homers off John Smoltz and the place just about exploded when Jacoby Ellsbury robbed Luke Scott of a long ball in the sixth inning. Of course, sitting right next to one of the loudest, most annoying Red Sox fans in the whole place probably didn't help my situation, but he was actually my roommate for the convention.
Anyway, the Orioles are headed for their 12th straight losing season and most of that ugly stretch has involved rosters full of overpaid, washed-up veterans, but watching the team in person got me thinking about just how well Andy MacPhail and company have set things up for the long haul. You wouldn't know it from their 44-61 record, but the Orioles have one of the best collections of long-term building blocks in all of baseball.
Adam Jones is hitting .302/.356/.501 as a 23-year-old center fielder, and he's flanked in the outfield corners by 25-year-olds Nick Markakis (.297/.353/.463) and Nolan Reimold (.281/.367/.462). Everyone knows all about 23-year-old Matt Wieters, who came into this season as the best prospect in baseball and top catching prospect since Joe Mauer. You won't find a better foursome of 25-and-under position players.
Pitching has been a huge problem for the Orioles this season, as the staff ranks 13th in the league with a 5.05 ERA, but 21-year-old right-hander Chris Tillman joined the rotation last week and his fellow stud prospect, 22-year-old left-hander Brian Matusz, will make his major-league debut tonight. Tillman and Matusz both have legitimate No. 1 starter potential, and 24-year-old David Hernandez has No. 2/No. 3 starter upside.
And the impressive collection of young talent doesn't end with the guys who're already in Baltimore, as prospects like Jake Arrieta, Brandon Erbe, Brandon Snyder, Kam Mickolio, Zach Britton, Troy Patton, and Brandon Waring offer the Orioles plenty of second-tier options as the next wave to help fill in the gaps around Wieters, Jones, Markakis, Reimold, Tillman, Matusz, and Hernandez.
Obviously stockpiling some great young building blocks and actually contending in the incredibly tough AL East are two very different things, but after more than a decade in the muck the Orioles have pulled themselves out and are in position to do some damage within the next couple seasons. Maybe one day Camden Yards will even be filled with more Orioles fans than Red Sox fans for a matchup against Boston.