Orioles must start to ponder breakup

Inside the Orioles

As season slips away, time will soon be ripe to trade for prospects

June 06, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles no longer talk about it being early because it isn't.

General manager Frank Wren no longer advocates a managerial switch because he realizes he lacks the leverage with majority owner Peter Angelos to make it happen.

In many ways the Orioles remain a team in suspended animation -- loaded with long-term contracts, an $84 million payroll and an aging roster. Wren, who supervised last week's momentous draft in which the Orioles exercised four first-round draft picks and seven of the first 50 selections overall, envisions a blueprint with young players introduced in pairs or threes the next several years.

Whether the process begins late next month -- or whether Wren will even hold his office then -- is unknown. But for the third time in four years the Orioles are faced with decisions complicated by a mix of competitive, marketing and visionary concerns.

The season is one-third done with the Orioles four games worse than last season's 25-29 mark. Only six weeks remain before the organization must address a season that likely offers only an abbreviated October.

"There are two issues involved," Wren said Friday. "The standings, certainly. Do you feel you're in a realistic position to make a run at it? The other is more subjective. Do you have a sense that the team is progressing, regressing or become stagnant? Those are determinations that can't be made right now, but will become increasingly important as the weeks pass."

It was only last season that the club decided in mid-July to keep a veteran club intact for an unlikely run at the wild card. At the time, the Orioles were 44-50 (fourth place) but riding a second-half surge that eventually brought them within 6 1/2 games of Boston. But the mathematics never offered real hope. A similar approach is harder to rationalize this summer: The Red Sox and Yankees are up by at least 11 1/2 games.

Legitimate contenders, meanwhile, are preparing for a purge.

Pitchers Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman are certain to be targeted by teams looking for midsummer help. Guzman, a free agent at season's end, represents "the perfect rental player for a team on the fence," according to one major-league executive.

Erickson, 1-8 and in the first season of a five-year, $32 million contract, would seem a lure to well-salaried, perennial contenders such as Cleveland or Los Angeles.

What do the Orioles do? Trade Guzman for prospects or try to put together a significant deal including Erickson, whose contract includes a no-trade provision specifying eight teams for whom he will not play?

Even though he has the right to veto a deal, does center fielder Brady Anderson become attractive to any of several contenders (read: Atlanta Braves) who sorely lack a leadoff hitter and could shift Anderson to left field, where most scouts believe his skills better fit?

Backup catcher Lenny Webster has pushed for a trade since spring training. His recent ankle injury has not helped his value, but Thursday's waiver claim of New York Yankees catcher Mike Figga gives Wren the necessary flexibility to swing a deal.

Co-closer Arthur Rhodes is one of the game's most powerful left-handed relievers. Like Guzman, he becomes a free agent after this season and has been unimpressed by the Orioles' reluctance to begin talks regarding an extension.

The Arizona Diamondbacks may be shopping for an alternative to Gregg Olson. The Chicago Cubs recently traded for Rick Aguilera but would also like a late-inning left-handed answer for the Braves.

Before the Orioles make any deal, they must decide whether to pick up Cal Ripken's $6.3 million option for 2000. Perhaps no other move more embodies the conflicting tug of various influences than this move. While Ripken has been a much-improved player since returning from the disabled list, the combination of age, health and production makes his option unwieldy.

While a sizable faction within the organization projects Ripken as a 40-year-old part-time player next season, equal concerns exist over possible media and public backlash. Through his dogged attempts to sign Brian Jordan and Robin Ventura last winter, Wren's preferences should be fairly obvious.

Guzman or Erickson? Certainly the Orioles would be more prone to moving Guzman rather than having to fill two holes within their rotation next season.

Matt Riley is coming, Jason Johnson has made a favorable first impression and with Sidney Ponson already the de facto No. 2 starter, Wren can envision a rotation for the future.

A trade involving the popular and recently productive Anderson? Anderson on Friday refused to close the door on approving such a deal but said he is inclined against doing so. He insisted a possible buyout of his no-trade status doesn't interest him.

Wren has frequently described this as a season of "transition." Last October he advocated to Angelos a better mix of youth and experience, of power and speed. He also was told he could control any decision over Miller's status, ground rules that have since changed.

"It's all dependent on what happens," Wren said. "You don't know right know what the situation is going to be a month or six weeks from now. You just prepare contingencies. But at this point to say we're going to go in this direction is premature."

The Orioles are on the clock.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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