Buster Olney, in the baseball preview edition of ESPN The Magazine, points out a daunting fact: 28 of the Orioles' first 35 games are against teams that had winning records last season. (He also notes that they have 12 straight games with the Red Sox and Yankees, starting in late April.) I can't think of a team's fanbase that would be more discouraged by a dreadful start than the Orioles' would be.
For the first time in a long time, the Orioles are slowly cobbling together something intriguing. Any team in baseball would love to have a core of young players like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Brian Matusz and Matt Wieters, playing in a gorgeous ballpark, in front of fans who love their Orioles but are getting rather sick and tired of Yankees fans invading and conquering Camden every couple of months. (The higher the Yankees make their ticket prices, the better the attendance for Yankees-Orioles games in Baltimore. In a wintry economic climate, it's checkbook wisdom. Yankees fans, for the most part, are rational economic actors.) The Orioles' front-office people are making smart decisions and constructing a roster in the fashion they should have been doing a decade ago. And it very well might not make a lick of difference. To quote Dave Cameron at Fangraphs:
This roster should offer O's fans a lot of hope, but due to factors beyond their control, that hope is significantly diminished. Even if Jones, Wieters, and Matusz all develop into stars, it still probably won't be enough. MacPhail needs to continue to hit home runs on trades, have every draft pick pan out, and they need to stay completely healthy – if all those things happen, they could challenge for the AL East crown in a year or two, until their core gets so expensive that they'll struggle to surround them with enough quality players to keep up.
Now that's frustrating. Orioles fans spend years waiting for management to wake up and realize what needed to be done, and by the time they do, the Red Sox and Yankees have mastered their arms race and the Rays have a five-year head start. For all the talk of the Pirates' historic drought, the Orioles are right there behind them. Baltimore's streak of losing seasons began six years after the Pirates' did. The Orioles might be farther along than the Pirates are in terms of roster construction, but their hill is more difficult to climb. As Cameron points out, the Orioles can do everything right and still miss out.
This has to be too much for fans to take: It is one thing to accept that your team is rebuilding from within and starting over. It is quite another to realize that the plan you're so relieved to finally see in place is a futile one. There is optimism in Baltimore, but optimism's a funny thing: It's a button you can only push once. Optimism must morph into incremental results, which must morph into success. If it doesn't, the failed plan is as effective as not having a plan at all. The Orioles are going to be a fun team to watch, but it's probably not going to matter. How do you build on that? How do you sell that? The Orioles have done this before, after all. Check out their win totals from the last 10 years:
2001: 63, nadir.
2002: 67, uptick.
2003: 71, uptick.
2004: 78, peak.
2005: 74, downtick.
2006: 70, downtick.
2007: 69, downtick.
2008: 68, downtick.
2009: 64, nadir.
Is this what this new plan is leading to? A 78-win season in 2013? That'll sell some tickets.
Which is why that early-season schedule is so particularly cruel. Sometimes, franchises can build off promise for a year or two, stretch it out to sell some programs. The Orioles don't have two years. They don't have one year. They might have one month. If the Orioles are at .500 in mid-May, they should hold a parade. Because this is an awful year to have an awful start. Though I suppose, really, they all are.