Breaking up isn't hard to do with O's

June 02, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

In each of the past few seasons, except for their wire-to-wire, division-winning year of 1997, the Orioles have faced an important decision at midseason: Do they trade parts of a disappointing team to enhance their future, or do they keep the team together and try to salvage a spot in the playoffs?

Each time, they have elected to keep the team together.

It's a habit they desperately need to break when they confront the same decision this season, as they surely will with their lamentable record and soaring payroll.

If they don't break up this team, of all teams, whatever credibility they still have with the fans will evaporate.

There's only so much the Orioles can do, an unfortunate result of various long-term commitments and no-trade clauses, but they should do as much as they can.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has never given up on a season, a fan-friendly policy that paid a dividend in 1996 in the form of a late-season surge and a wild-card trip to the AL Championship Series, but the long-term effect of forever forsaking the future is now obvious.

Check the bottom of the AL East standings for verification.

The Orioles are old, inflexible and below average at best, an infamous, worst-case trifecta.

Breaking them up would be an act of mercy.

Not breaking them up would be a sporting crime.

Yes, it's still early enough for them to find themselves and grab a place in the wild-card race, but the chances are growing microscopic as they muddle along with a record well under .500 and without any hint of a lasting turnaround.

You keep a team together as long as making the playoffs is a realistic goal, but there's no point when a team is blatantly inferior to the pennant contenders, as are the Orioles in relation to the Indians and Yankees.

This is the textbook example of a season deserving to die for the future's sake, slim statistical hopes and pipe dreams notwithstanding.

It's a year for the Orioles to trade whomever they can for whatever they can, as long as it makes long-term sense.

Mike Mussina? No way. Exclamation point. Trading him for a bushel of young players is an interesting concept and a lively talking point, but a terrible idea. A No. 1 starter with Mussina's high standards and formidable mental approach is a piece of bedrock on which any clubhouse can stand.

Sidney Ponson also shouldn't be dealt. He's that rare commodity, a blossoming Orioles homebred promising years of solid starting pitching. Do not touch under any circumstances.

Almost as invaluable is a catcher such as Charles Johnson. His arm and defense are brilliant, his hitting is a pleasant surprise and he's only 27. Signing him to a long-term deal after this season is a must.

Re-signing shortstop Mike Bordick also would be a good idea, even though he'll be 34 in July and the Orioles need to get younger, not older. But his defense is flawless, his offense is improving and he sets a hard-working, professional tone. He's part of the solution.

Anyone else is fair game. Not that GM Frank Wren has many options with so many players sitting on long-term contracts. Albert Belle and Brady Anderson have no-trade clauses, and Scott Erickson, Mike Timlin and Delino DeShields are among those owed many years and millions.

The best candidates for being dealt are pitchers Juan Guzman and Arthur Rhodes and backup catcher Lenny Webster. It'd be a shame to give up Rhodes, a dominating reliever, but he'd command the most in return and the Orioles should investigate. Same with Guzman. American League pitching is so weak that he'll be in demand, regardless of his record.

If Wren could find a taker for DeShields, who is in the first year of a three-year deal, that would be a positive step. The Orioles already had a future at second base with Jerry Hairston and Jesse Garcia, when they signed DeShields last winter. It's time to start correcting such mistakes and promoting the young players who can benefit from playing.

Dealing Erickson also should be explored, even though his value is down after his poor start. Of course, it's hard to imagine any other team assuming $25 million in salary for a pitcher with a 1-7 record.

Only the Orioles could wind up in such dutch.

Their limited options are endemic of their longstanding policy of playing veterans and playing to win now -- a policy clearly in need of rewriting. They have dug themselves a deep, constricting hole. Digging out will be difficult and time-consuming.

But there is talent in the farm system for once, and more is coming with seven high picks in today's amateur draft. The Orioles' long-term prospects aren't necessarily bleak -- as long as the front office starts exhibiting patience and long-range vision for a change.

The process can start when the Orioles confront their annual decision near the trading deadline next month. This year, it's an easy call. A no-brainer. Break up the Orioles. Please. Enough already.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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