Now is time to find taker for Guzman

July 10, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- He might be painful to watch. He might drive his manager crazy. But Juan Guzman is starting to look like the Juan Guzman of 1998, which is to say, a pitcher who would be desirable to a contender in a trade.

Don't look now, but Guzman's 4-7 record and 4.31 earned-run average compare favorably with his 6-12 mark and 4.41 ERA when the Orioles acquired him for Triple A right-hander Nerio Rodriguez last July 31.

Guzman was his usual self last night, throwing 125 pitches in six innings, pitching with men in scoring position five times, issuing seven walks. Still, the Orioles trailed Philadelphia only 2-1 when he left the game.

Naturally, it wasn't good enough -- the Orioles' bullpen immediately allowed two runs, the difference in the Phillies' 4-2 victory. But a team with stronger relief pitching gladly would settle for such quality starts, however ugly.

Trade Guzman. Trade Scott Erickson. Trade any veteran you can off this stinking team, except for Mike Mussina, Mike Bordick, B. J. Surhoff and Cal Ripken, who yesterday had his $6.3 million option exercised for 2000.

It's stating the obvious to say that the Orioles should do anything and everything to get younger before the July 31 deadline for completing trades without waivers. But it bears repeating for an organization that is forever in denial.

The Orioles are a season- high 17 games under .500, 17 1/2 games out of first place and 14 1/2 games behind wild-card leading Boston. No one should be fooled if they again get hot, as they are wont to do whenever the pressure eases.

Guzman, a potential free agent, represents the best value for a contender -- the team that acquires him would be responsible for the balance of his $5.5 million per salary, nothing more.

Erickson, 31, would be far more difficult to move, with four years and $25.6 million left on his contract, plus the leverage he would acquire from being traded in the middle of a multi-year deal.

Such players have the right to demand another trade at season's end. If no deal is completed by the following March 15, they can void their contracts and become free agents.

But would Erickson do such a thing?

He might prefer to stay with his new team, assuming that it is set up to contend. And if he fails to show marked improvement, he might not command more than $25.6 million on the open market.

In essence, he would be a gamble. But a team like the New York Mets might take the chance if it believed Erickson could return to his 15-win, 200-inning form, viewing his $6.4 million annual salary as a potential bargain.

What if Erickson got hot down the stretch, then used his hammer? Well, it probably would mean that he led his new team to the postseason. And by that measure, the trade would have been a success.

For the Orioles, there might be no better time to move Erickson. By the middle of next season, he will attain 10 years of major-league service, five with the same team. That will give him the right to veto any trade.

Without Erickson, the Orioles still can envision a future rotation of Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Matt Riley -- a reasonable start, especially when they could get more pitching in return for Erickson, and apply his $24 million toward another durable veteran.

Naturally, the idea hinges on Erickson continuing his modest resurgence. He has produced two straight quality starts, but he enters tomorrow's start with a .311 opponents' batting average, third-worst in the league.

After tomorrow, Erickson likely will start only three more times before July 31. But with so many teams in need of pitching, it's still possible that he will become an attractive commodity.

What other quality starters are available? Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley and Andy Pettitte, maybe David Wells. Appier and Finley are potential free agents. Pettitte is eligible for salary arbitration. Wells just signed a lucrative two-year extension.

Restrictions or not, all of the above will draw interest, and so will Guzman and Erickson. Potential free agents Arthur Rhodes, Lenny Webster and Harold Baines could be traded separately or included as part of a package.

Orioles general manager Frank Wren helped the Florida Marlins build perhaps the game's deepest farm system, serving as assistant GM when the 1997 world champions dismantled by trading veterans for prospects.

Wren has made a series of shrewd trades (Charles Johnson, Jeff Conine, Jason Johnson) in his brief tenure with the Orioles. But it's unclear whether he would be granted the authority to make the necessary trades.

If so, it would represent another opportunity lost. Wren probably wouldn't hit on every trade; no GM does. But the more young players he acquires, the better his chances of making this team appealing and competitive again.

What is there to lose at this point?

How much worse can the Orioles get?

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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