Orioles fire scouting director Nickels Thrift may be reassigned as part of shake-up

October 30, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Breaking more ties to a past that long underplayed the importance of scouting and player development, the Orioles have notified scouting director Gary Nickels that his contract will not be extended.

The move, expected for several months but yet to be announced by the club, comes less than a week after the naming of Frank Wren as Orioles general manager and further suggests sweeping internal changes. Nickels' firing leaves director of player development Syd Thrift as baseball operations' only remaining department head from the start of the season. Thrift will likely be reassigned soon within the organization, according to club sources.

Nickels served eight years as Orioles scouting director and 10 within the organization. The Orioles began the season with 14 members of their 40-man roster drafted or signed as amateur free agents during Nickels' term. Prospects Ryan Minor, Calvin Pickering and Jerry Hairston were signed under his watch.

"I'm a little disappointed we weren't able to win a World Series. You always want to win the whole thing at some point. But when I came in here, we had a long way to go as far as organization, structure and computerization. We've come a long way and I'm proud of that," said Nickels.

A Chicago resident, Nickels joined the Orioles in 1989 as Midwest scouting supervisor and national cross-checker. He played a pivotal role in the selection of first-round draftees Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina in 1989 and 1990.

The Orioles later suffered a drought when free-agent signings left them without first-round selections in 1994 and 1996. The missing picks contributed to the club's inability to develop an everyday position player during Nickels' term.

More recently, Nickels had helped coordinate a renaissance of the club's scouting philosophy advanced by former general manager Pat Gillick. Under Gillick and Nickels, the club placed greater emphasis on the amateur draft not only by drafting for talent but also by weighing the negative effects of premium free-agent acquisitions on draft position.

"We've come a long, long way. I'm proud of what we did," Nickels said.

Armed with three of the 1997 amateur draft's first 33 picks, the Orioles signed high school catcher Jayson Werth, outfielder Darnell McDonald and junior college left-hander Matt Riley.

Riley, a third-round draftee signed for a bargain $175,000, was immediately rated the organization's premier left-handed pitching prospect. Werth ($875,000) and McDonald ($1.95 million) last summer reinforced the industry's perception that the Orioles '97 draft may be the best of any club.

The Orioles had eight prospects ranked this year among the top 10 in their respective league by Baseball America. "I think we left them with better players in the system, certainly with a better structure," Nickels said.

The Orioles must also replace scouting administrator Matt Slater, who left earlier this month to accept a job as assistant scouting director with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Manny Estrada, supervisor of international scouting, also resigned earlier this month.

Wren hopes to begin interviewing candidates to fill the scouting vacancies sometime next week.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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