Reshuffled & rebuilt

Orioles: After the disappointmnet of 1998, the club has changed up its roster with a new blend of players that includes driven veterans

April 04, 1999|By JOE STRAUSS | JOE STRAUSS,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Five months into his term as Orioles general manager, Frank Wren has christened the 1999 season "a transition." Wren may be a man of understatement.

Coming off a fourth-place season in which they were ridiculed for a bloated payroll and underachieving play, the Orioles have undergone a transformation almost unprecedented in club history. When they take to the field Monday for their season opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Orioles will be without 11 faces who accompanied them north last season. Manager Ray Miller will have three new members on his coaching staff. Expectations, so monstrous last March when the club carried a World Series-or-bust attitude, have decayed while payroll has swelled beyond $81 million.

As for Wren's "transition," the most anticipated switch would be from a factionalized, injury-riddled and old clubhouse to a driven, energized and, uh, elder bunch.

These Orioles aren't appreciably younger than last year's Jurassic collection, but they do represent a new mix comparatively devoid of the free-agent intrigue that contributed to last season's meltdown.

"You look at what we have, and it's certainly much different than before," says Wren. "No matter what, I think in this day and age you have to look for ways to make yourself better. I think it was apparent to anyone watching that last year didn't work."

With the blessing (and money) of majority owner Peter Angelos, Wren and Miller have collaborated on a makeover that was both frenetic and daring. Angelos abandoned his stance against signing any player to an eight-figure annual salary when he snared free-agent outfielder Albert Belle with a five-year, $65 million offer. One year after the Orioles denied Randy Myers' demand for a three-year deal, closer Mike Timlin became the first relief pitcher signed by the club to a four-year contract. Second baseman Delino DeShields defected from the National League for a three-year deal, and first baseman Will Clark replaced his former college teammate, Rafael Palmeiro, only days after Palmeiro stiffed Angelos' five-year, $50 million package.

The Orioles still aren't sure what they've got. Belle is the game's most productive hitter over the past eight seasons, but he also represents a potential incendiary device.

Clark, the projected No. 3 hitter, enjoyed a career rebirth last season with the Texas Rangers. At 35, Clark must approach his 149 games played last year rather than the 115 averaged over the four previous seasons. Timlin has closed for an entire season only once in an eight-year career.

His left thumb broken during a March 4 intrasquad game, DeShields enters the season in a new league without benefit of facing major-league pitching this spring. The Orioles' only spare outfielder, Rich Amaral, missed the latter stages of camp with back stiffness dating to last season.

Still, Miller prefers this blend. After believing portions of last year's clubhouse quit on him in September, Miller can stand the current uncertainty.

"Last year, there were so many agendas in play it was hard to have everyone pull in the same direction," says Miller, obliquely referring to the team's 14 pending free agents at the start of last season and the uncertain status of general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone. "A lot of people were more concerned about their own situations than where the team was going."

With four new regulars, four new relievers and a bench he believes superior to 1998, Miller considers predictions of a combustible mix more precisely suggest a higher intensity level than what permeated last season's 79-83 slog.

The addition of Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson to a team that allowed 182 stolen bases -- most in the AL since the Texas Rangers surrendered 205 in 1987 -- should halt jailbreaks and allow pitchers to use off-speed pitches with more confidence.

"I've been very impressed by the level of professionalism on this team," says Clark, among those who last winter noted the Orioles' seemingly low energy level in 1998. "Guys here work. They get here early in the morning, head to the back fields and do a lot of extra work that nobody sees. That's something you don't see until you're here. It made an impression on me."

Hall of Famer pitcher and Home Team Sports broadcaster Jim Palmer says he has seen this before. The year was 1966, when the Orioles broke through with their first world championship. Palmer sees Belle playing the role of Frank Robinson and Sidney Ponson perhaps playing him.

"Frank's presence made everybody better, the way an Albert Belle can," says Palmer. "Different guys stepped up. That's when the Oriole Way started."

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