More certain than whether the Orioles can discover at least four wins and Cal Ripken's 400th home run against the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics on their six-game road swing is that they will return much if not entirely the same as when they boarded a charter Thursday.
General manager Frank Wren never promised a midseason overhaul. Indeed, he suggested otherwise as recently as Monday.
Wren said he has scripted an extended vision for a club that has typically been constructed around each year's free-agent pool. The result is a roster bloated with long-term deals, advanced age and players with leverage to veto trades.
By the end of next May, the Orioles will have four players (Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Albert Belle and Scott Erickson) possessing absolute veto power over trades. All but Belle enjoy the power because of tenure -- at least 10 years within the American League and five years with the same team. No other major-league team is so constricted.
B. J. Surhoff (who has limited no-trade protection), Delino DeShields and Mike Timlin are signed through at least 2001. If dealt, they possess the leverage to demand another trade at season's end.
The Orioles indicated their wishes when recently distributing their list of "untouchables" -- Ripken, Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson, Surhoff and Charles Johnson. Designated hitter Harold Baines, 40, was all but off-limits. Meanwhile, six of those under the no-trade umbrella or signed last winter to multi-year deals were open for discussion.
Infielder Jeff Reboulet, 42-year-old reliever Jesse Orosco, first baseman Will Clark and utility player Rich Amaral have contracts guaranteed through 2000.
Shortstop Mike Bordick's option automatically vests for next season should he receive 500 plate appearances. He enters today's game 50 plate appearances shy of the threshold.
Arthur Rhodes, Scott Kamieniecki, Ricky Bones, Mike Fetters, Jeff Conine and Baines are pending free agents -- a significant change from last winter, when four starting position players and the club's most frequently seen right-handed reliever were available. Of this year's free-agent class, only Rhodes has been approached about a contract extension.
Though Wren has classified this as a "transitional" year, the organization appears at least two years removed from producing significant help. Rochester has been so disappointed by its Triple-A product this season that it rejected the Orioles' offer of a three-year extension of their 39-year marriage.
Second baseman Jerry Hairston, optioned back to Rochester July 22 after 24 eye-catching starts, and left-handed prodigy Matt Riley appear the only realistic internal additions next season. Catcher Jayson Werth and center fielder Luis Matos are projected at least two years removed. June's amateur draft, which was heavy on college players, is also expected to provide help by 2001.
Third baseman Ryan Minor and first baseman Calvin Pickering were once considered locks, but their gloss has diminished with difficult seasons at Rochester. Minor, 26 next January, is no longer projected as can't-miss. Pickering, 23 next month, has enough time to improve defensively and erase negative impressions created by his distracted first half.
To paraphrase our most recent Republican president, the larger issue appears to be who controls the "vision thing."
Loath to speak out on the matter, Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos has told associates he does not intend to assume the option on manager Ray Miller's contract for next season. Angelos' leading candidates to succeed Miller include St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, 54, and Milwaukee Brewers skipper Phil Garner, 50. Atlanta Braves hitting coach Don Baylor and current first base coach Eddie Murray apparently are secondary candidates, at best, as Angelos would rather break his association with ex-Orioles (Johnny Oates, Davey Johnson and Miller).
La Russa possesses mystique, albeit just one 90-win season since taking the Athletics to the 1990 World Series title.
But even better, minority shareholder and syndicated columnist George Will extolled La Russa's brilliance in his book, "Men At Work." Like Angelos, La Russa is a lawyer, undoubtedly raising estimates of his intellectual capacity.
Garner, like La Russa, is in the final year of his contract. Unlike La Russa, he is unlikely to be invited back. In his eighth year with the Brewers, Garner has not enjoyed a winning season since taking the 1992 Brewers to a surprise second-place finish in the AL East.
The small-market Brewers since have finished an average of 11 games below .500 and no better than third in six subsequent seasons.