At midpoint, O's open market

Unlike past years, club set to take apart roster in season of surrender

July 11, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- The Orioles' most significant organizational meeting of the season approaches, perhaps as early as next week, with the outcome hardly in doubt but the implementation the most captivating aspect of a spoiled season.

Unlike last July, when management blinked rather than immerse itself in a clubhouse renovation, the Orioles are virtually certain to explore every available trade avenue in the next several weeks to take apart a roster that has proved dysfunctional since its construction last winter. General manager Frank Wren will make a presentation to majority owner Peter Angelos, chief operating officer Joe Foss and executive vice president John Angelos.

Peter Angelos already has expressed a willingness to commit to a greater role for home-grown players. Wren has withheld his sentiment until after the meeting.

However, contenders have shown interest in several players, especially starting pitchers Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman. There also will be offers for left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes and 22-year-old starter Sidney Ponson. The Orioles likely will listen to everyone but refuse to part with Ponson.

Expectations not only arise from a disenchanted fan base -- paid attendance at Camden Yards is down 118,188 compared with last season -- but also from within an $84 million clubhouse as well.

"Everyone in here is waiting for something to happen," said one player. "I think a number of guys hope it happens to them. The only surprise is it hasn't happened yet."

Such sentiment contrasts sharply with last season, when the Orioles entered the All-Star break 38-50 and seemingly out of wild-card contention, only to surge in July.

At that point, a collection of veterans, including pitcher Mike Mussina and pending free agents Rafael Palmeiro, Alan Mills and Eric Davis, lobbied to keep the club together. No one is saying that this time, Wren included. Asked if the Orioles' abundance of recently negotiated long-term deals would inhibit the club if it decided to unload, the first-year general manager said: "It's an obstacle. It depends on the terms of the contract and the needs of the other team involved. If the need is great enough, something can probably be worked out with the other club."

This is a novel position for an organization that has consistently used the July 31 waiver deadline as motivation to add rather than subtract. Last year, the Orioles obtained Guzman from the Toronto Blue Jays. The year before, designated hitter Harold Baines arrived from the Chicago White Sox on July 29.

As for the next several weeks

"We have to make those determinations as an organization," Wren said. "We would take input from all involved first."

Wren's presence at the All-Star Game will likely create a feeding frenzy. The Cleveland Indians and New York Mets already have begun circling. The Indians are particularly interested in Erickson, in the first year of a five-year, $32 million deal that makes him a relative bargain when pitching to form.

Preoccupied with toppling the division rival Atlanta Braves, the Mets covet Rhodes as either a third left-handed reliever or a left-handed replacement for John Franco should their 400-save man not recover quickly from an injured finger on his pitching hand.

Rather than look behind at its train-wreck first half, the Orioles look toward a second half with fewer expectations about record building than franchise building.

* Who is the most likely to be traded? What about Mussina?

Guzman represents the perfect rental player, a pending free agent who has pitched with increasing effectiveness each month. No longer counted upon as anything more than a six-inning pitcher, he doesn't fit well with the Orioles' invisible bullpen.

Teams including Cleveland, the Boston Red Sox and Mets possess more than enough depth to cover his three innings. Guzman apparently has overcome the aftereffects of shoulder surgery in September 1997. Strikeouts and velocity suggest an improvement.

Any pitcher other than Mussina and Ponson can likely be had. Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, has had "very preliminary" talks with Angelos regarding a contract extension that would include reworking the final season of a three-year deal signed in May 1997.

Mussina's current deal also includes a no-trade provision that Mussina has said he would not waive under any circumstances. At the time of his last signing, Mussina said he wanted to remain an Oriole for life. The last two seasons have done nothing to alter his stance.

"I can't think of anything worse than going someplace else and having this team get into contention," he said. "The history of this organization suggests that if there's rebuilding, it won't take very long."

Among position players, catcher Lenny Webster will likely be the first traded, probably before the end of next week.

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