Not Good Enough: The Dave Trembley Era

Dave Trembley had to go and deserved to go. He seemed nice, and I liked the idea of Dave Trembley--I always like a baseball manager who Never Played in the Big Leagues--but the Orioles should never have brought him back for this season.

It was not Dave Trembley's fault that the Orioles are a lousy team this year. They are a lousy team because they have a lousy collection of players. A little over a week ago, this finally sank in, when they fielded the following lineup:

Corey Patterson, LF, .267

Julio Lugo, 2B, .229

Ty Wigginton, 1B, .281

Miguel Tejada, 3B, .260

Matt Wieters, C, .261

Adam Jones, CF, .259

Garrett Atkins, DH, .220

Lou Montanez, RF, .146

Cesar Izturis, SS, .226

In April, it was possible to wonder how the Orioles, who had looked in the offseason like a team that might be on the upswing, could really have the worst record in baseball. Not anymore. The Orioles have the worst record in baseball because it's hard to imagine many other teams sending out less talent than that, one through nine.

Five players in that lineup ended the night with on-base percentages below .300. Three players had slugging percentages below .250. (The designated hitter was slugging .305.)

Because baseball is a funny game, the Orioles actually scored 5 runs that night. But the pitchers coughed up 5 runs in the eighth inning, and they lost 7 to 5.

So it is true that Dave Trembley never got any real talent to work with. He took a beating with teams that were supposed to be terrible, after the front office had cleared things away for a long-term rebuilding process. Then, this year, he took a beating with a team that was supposed to have been improved, but wasn't. The winning percentage says he was the second-worst manager in Orioles history, which is almost certainly unfair--not next to guys like Phil Regan and Ray Miller, who butchered potentially decent teams.

What he was was a good company man for a bad company. The Orioles are three years into what they are pretending is an investment cycle, another one, in which they have been trading "present-day value" for "future value." Case by case, this is a reasonable thing to do. I was appalled when the Orioles got rid of Erik Bedard, but they knew more about his shoulder than the Mariners or I did, and they got multiple players back for him. Then they flipped George Sherrill, the overrated three-out closer they got in the deal, for even more players. The franchise is stronger for that.

The difference between baseball talent and investment assets, though, is that baseball talent gets cashed in, whether you want it or not, 162 times a year. The games count. The Orioles lost 99 games in 2009, games that were every bit as real as the games they will play in 2011, when they were hoping the young players would be all grown up and ready to play. They were losers.

It would have been possible to have made a better team last season, with no harm done to the future. Old pitchers like Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were sitting around, waiting to be signed to short-term, moderate-priced deals. They would not have blocked any of the budding pitching talent from reaching the majors in 2011 or 2012. Front-office boss Andy MacPhail decided to build a rotation out of junk-heap pitchers instead, inviting a few dozen failures to spring training in the hopes that enough of them might turn into successes. They all stayed failures, leaving the Orioles with the worst pitching staff in baseball.

This past offseason, MacPhail seemed to be doing something a little different. He picked up Kevin Millwood and Miguel Tejada--adequate veterans to fill gaping holes, the kind of additions that should be a baseball executive's minimum professional responsibility. I almost began to suspect MacPhail had tanked 2009 on purpose, so that by adding a few practical pieces, he would get a bounce in the standings in 2010, whether the young talent was truly improving or not. (Signing a player as obviously broken-down and useless as Garrett Atkins, on the other hand, suggested MacPhail might simply have an honest addiction to investing in penny stocks.) The team was so sure things would be better, it introduced a surcharge on day-of-game tickets, to squeeze extra money out of fans who might notice the sudden success and make an impulse trip to the ballpark.

Then Brian Roberts got hurt. This is where the future-value model of baseball goes most wrong. All the while the Orioles organization was trudging toward some distant promised tomorrow, Roberts was out on the field playing baseball, in the here and now. He hit 50 doubles, 54, 56--all in seasons that management treated as write-offs. By the time the Orioles had rounded up a catcher, an outfield, and corner infielders to keep Roberts company, the wear and tear had caught up with him. Now the games were supposed to be for real, and he couldn't go.

Everything counts, all the time. The job the Orioles originally gave Dave Trembley to do--keep one end of the dugout bench warm, and watch a team built to lose go through the motions--was an insult to baseball. And Trembley was not good enough to make up for it.

That is, Dave Trembley's Orioles couldn't help but look like they were going through the motions. They were sloppy. They were unfocused. They tailed off into losing spells that lasted for weeks.

If you dug into more esoteric numbers than wins and losses, looking for a sign that your eyes were fooling you, nothing good ever turned up. The Orioles were bad at preventing unearned runs. They were bad at turning their own hits into runs, bad at getting from first to third, bad at keeping the other team from taking the extra base--bad at every little thing that might have made a difference in a game.

Did that make Trembley a bad baseball manager? Heaven only knows. He might be fundamentally a decent manager. Maybe he's a bad one. Maybe he's mediocre. The only thing he was able to prove was that he was not a great one.

A great manager, at some point, would have wrung a pleasant surprise or two out of his roster. At no time did Trembley's Orioles overachieve, or show any hint of being more than the sum of their parts. He did not noticeably hide anyone's weaknesses or showcase anyone's special strengths; he showed no knack for getting his hot-and-cold-running hitters into the lineup for their hot spells or out of it for their cold ones. He did not stymie other teams' rallies with a cleverly chosen pitching change. Given bad players, he got bad results.

With him gone, at least, the bad players are the front office's direct responsibility. Dave Trembley was probably not the problem, but he wasn't a solution, either. Finding a solution is Andy MacPhail's job.

Jun 5, 2010, 12:55 PM     Andy MacPhail · blame · Dave Trembley · failures · Orioles · overreliance on metaphor

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