Don't blame GM Wren for crash - O's blocked his vision

May 25, 1999|By John Eisenberg

You need a whole lot of fingers to point at everyone who has contributed to the Orioles' pitiful start in 1999. The players, the manager, the general manager, the owner -- it takes a village to go 16-27 with an $84 million payroll. Even the prior front office regime deserves blame.

But when listing the villagers in order of culpability, don't put rookie general manager Frank Wren near the top.

The underachieving players are ahead of him, as are the manager and owner.

True, Wren signed setup guy Mike Timlin as a closer, gave Delino DeShields a regrettable three-year contract and botched the Xavier Hernandez signing -- moves that won't earn him any Executive of the Year votes.

He also made numerous personnel calls, so he's hardly absolved of blame. Just ask owner Peter Angelos.

Given the history of Orioles employees with whom Angelos becomes dissatisfied, Wren's future here already is tenuous.

But you know what? That's ridiculous.

Players who fail to make routine plays, count outs or live up to their big contracts are more responsible for the Orioles' poor record, as is a manager with a .460 career winning percentage and debatable tactical and motivational skills.

Wren? He deserves a break. A GM's first job is to implement his vision for the team, and when he wants to fire the manager and isn't allowed to, his vision is blunted.

So is his authority when major moves are made against his wishes, such as the release of reliever Heathcliff Slocumb last month.

No, Slocumb wasn't the answer in the bullpen, but overruling Wren leaves the Orioles right where they were during Pat Gillick's tenure -- as the product of a blur of visions rather than one.

It's no way to put a winning team together.

As much as Wren's record in his first seven months has been spotty, he's new on the job and deserves more rope. A lot more.

For starters, he could be the right person to oversee a long-term rebuilding project. His specialty is player development, turning minor-leaguers into major-leaguers. The Orioles' inability to do that consistently in the '80s and '90s is what's really wrong with them now.

They have a chance to correct the problem with a solid crop of prospects in the pipeline and seven of the top 50 picks in the coming draft, but they need to take the right approach -- the patient approach Wren learned working for the Expos and Marlins.

In that sense, he's a perfect fit. Left completely alone, Wren probably could bring along a steady stream of quality young players. Remember those?

Of course, what are the chances of his being left completely alone? Even slimmer than the chances of the Orioles exhibiting patience instead of a never-ending win-now mentality.

Wren also has potential as a dealer, his earlier mistakes notwithstanding. He's smart and well-connected, and he's shown creative tendencies. Acquiring Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson for Armando Benitez was an excellent move, even if Benitez is sorely missed in the bullpen. (Stability at catcher was a must.) And Jeff Conine was a solid pickup.

Those who label Wren as a hatchet man who chopped up the Marlins are missing the point. He and Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski were ordered to start whacking after putting together a World Series winner. (Wren was Dombrowski's assistant.)

It wasn't their idea. And what they got in return left the Marlins with a farm system deep in prospects.

It's way too soon to assign Wren a grade for his performance here, of course. He had legitimate obstacles to overcome when he was hired last October. The free-agent shark pool was already churning. Jumping in late put him at a major disadvantage. The machinations that led to the departures of Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Alan Mills were already well under way.

Wren had to move his family, hire a staff and rebuild a roster at the same time -- all in his first weeks as a major-league GM working for a demanding owner.

Good luck.

He might end up being better as an assistant GM or a player development guy, but he also might have the stuff to excel as a GM. The point is that it's just too soon to know. As much as Wren's name is one of the logs on the Orioles' $84 million bonfire, there are bigger logs causing more problems.

Rather than rushing to judge Wren's first months on the job under such conditions, the Orioles should give him a chance to prove himself.

Breakdown

Orioles' record: 16-27 Extra innings: 1-0

At home: 12-12 Series wins: 4

On road: 4-15 Series losses: 10

On grass: 16-21 Series splits: 0

On turf: 0-6 Series sweeps: 1

Day games: 6-8 Vs. AL East: 3-12

Night games: 10-19 Vs. AL Central: 8-7

One-run games: 2-8 Vs. AL West: 5-8

Two-run games: 3-3 Vs. NL: 0-0

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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