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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Last-place Orioles remain stuck in familiar late-season rut

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Lefty Zach Britton is one reason Orioles fans have a glimmer of hope for the future. (Getty Images)  
Lefty Zach Britton is one reason Orioles fans have a glimmer of hope for the future. (Getty Images)  

Remember those long-ago days when "Baltimore chop" didn't always refer to the Orioles getting clipped?

They've had a warehouse full of problems for more than a decade now, and an owner's suite full of issues. One step forward, four back. Golden memories of Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer, present-day realities of Lee Mazzilli and Sidney Ponson. Ugh.

Now ... Andy MacPhail, we hardly knew ye?

Speculation has been increasing for months that Peter Angelos' 2007 choice as the Birds' latest Mr. Fix-It has grown weary of the heavy lifting and will fly the coop when his contract expires after this season. USAToday's Bob Nightengale reported Tuesday that it's a done deal. MacPhail has been mum for weeks, including when he and I talked several days ago, when he said, "let's just get to the end of the season and see where we are."

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Where the Orioles are, of course, is where they usually are as September begins: Trapped in the purgatory that is located somewhere between the bottom of the AL East heap and the Triple-A International League, losses stacking up the way season-ticket orders once did (sigh), heads shaking like a Cal Ripken bobblehead doll.

Disheartening doesn't even begin to cover it. This time last year, the MacPhail-Buck Showalter leadership team had pulled the Birds up off the mat. They went 34-23 from the time Showalter took over, second-best record in the AL over the final 57 games.

Talk about heady days. Baltimore hadn't been second-best in anything in the AL in more than a decade, unless, perhaps, you were ranking Muppet-like second basemen (1. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox; 2. Brian Roberts, Orioles).

But last September didn't take. A combination of injuries (Roberts, Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero) and regression (Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman) has been toxic.

The Orioles wisely retooled an infield that was among the least productive in the game last summer. The plan was, Lee, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds would boost the offense enough to give a young rotation -- the Orioles' hope for the future -- room to grow. With more runs, each mistake wouldn't be magnified as much.

But talk about plugging one hole while three more spring up: The Orioles have produced the worst overall ERA, and worst starting pitchers' ERA, in the AL this season.

"Developing young pitching is a process," Showalter says. "Old scouts used to tell you it would be three years before you really know what you have.

"I went through this in Texas with C.J. Wilson, and in New York with Andy Pettitte, and I can go on and name you about 20 more names."

As a unit, Orioles starting pitchers have thrown the fewest number of innings of any AL rotation (730 2/3), struck out the fewest (472) and allowed the most home runs (106). Pitching in the AL East, of course, is not unlike seeing how many times you can sprint across a busy freeway crowded with 18-wheelers: If you're not careful, you'll get flattened sooner rather than later. And if you are careful, you'll get flattened later rather than sooner.

If MacPhail is in his final days, though it may be difficult to see given this year's 54-79 record, he clearly will leave the Orioles in far better shape than they were when he signed on.

Buck Showalter's arrival in 2010 created high hopes at Camden Yards, but success hasn't carried over to this season. (Getty Images)  
Buck Showalter's arrival in 2010 created high hopes at Camden Yards, but success hasn't carried over to this season. (Getty Images)  
It was MacPhail who convinced the owner to stop throwing so much good money after bad in the free agent market and instead sink that dough into rebuilding the Orioles' infrastructure. That included both the draft, where the O's landed catcher Matt Wieters and some of their young pitching, and a new facility in the Dominican Republic. The O's still are not as strong there as other clubs.

It also was MacPhail who convinced Angelos of the lunacy of operating spring training in Fort Lauderdale at an antiquated, inadequate facility while the Orioles' minor leaguers were across the state in Sarasota. MacPhail spearheaded Baltimore's consolidating spring training (and year-round operations) in Sarasota, a move that will pay dividends for years.

As for the now, as Showalter says, "Our season was going to be dictated by young pitching. The whole tone of everything was going to be set by our starting pitching."

Among many other sins, young starters like Zach Britton, Tillman and Matusz too often have gotten rocked in the first inning, where Baltimore has been outscored 94-43 this season.

"Most times, the best development for young pitchers comes during the winter," Showalter says. "When they step back and get away from us."

Meaning: The game breaks, life slows and there's time to reflect on what they've learned, think about what they need to change, re-group for next season.

"It's a process," Showalter says. "If you try to cheat the process. ... Nothing's ever as bad as it seems or as good as it seems. Believe me, I'm looking at it through clear glasses."

MacPhail is pretty good at that, too. Maybe it's why, more and more, he sounds like he's ready for something else. At 58, he's been in the game for 35 years. Enough?

Showalter has grown close enough to Angelos that he is expected to have some input into MacPhail's replacement. Among many other names making rounds in the industry is that of John Hart, the former Cleveland and Texas general manager who both managed in the Orioles' minor-league system in the 1980s and hired Showalter to manage the Rangers in 2003.

Meantime, as the skipper is quick to point out, not everything has imploded this summer. Adam Jones is becoming a full-fledged star. Hardy, who was awarded a three-year, $22.25 million contract extension, has produced. Nick Markakis continues to grow. And Wieters. ...

"Wieters is the best tagger I've ever seen," Showalter gushes. "He's like a shortstop at the plate."

It's Baltimore, and it's September and, well ... that's something.

Isn't it?

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