Cast familiar as Orioles hope to stage revival

Questions, holdovers abound as spring camp gets ready to open

February 13, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Frank Wren, Ray Miller, Doug Johns and Jesse Orosco are out. Syd Thrift, Mike Hargrove, Buddy Groom and Chuck McElroy are in. Delino DeShields is back. Cal Ripken's backache is gone.

The Orioles eliminated the general manager's chair and replaced it with a vice president of baseball operations. They almost traded B. J. Surhoff, then looked at his contract. They almost signed Aaron Sele, then looked at his medical history.

Club executives refuse to define who carries what responsibility, but Wren's ouster, the installation of Thrift and November's coming-out of executive vice president John Angelos are the clearest manifestations of Peter Angelos' deeper handprint.

While the Orioles remade their front office, they return much the same roster accused of underachieving during a 78-84 fourth-place season that cost nearly $90 million in payroll, benefits and luxury tax. Besides holding the line on ticket prices, the club cites Hargrove's presence, a renovation of the bullpen and the return of Will Clark, DeShields and Ripken from injuries as reasons for excitement.

But what would the Orioles be without questions?

Albert Belle without the scowl and the stutter-step trot? Scott Erickson without the black high tops? Surhoff without the argued called strike? Brady Anderson without the 'burns?

So as the first of many public services, we list 10 issues the Orioles bring to Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Some answers may be revealed beginning Thursday. Others may tease until September.

1. Will Mike Hargrove make a difference?

Few clubhouses offer a manager as many challenges as the Orioles'.

Davey Johnson, the manager in 1996 and '97, never worried about establishing friendships with players. Instead, Johnson's prior success and what some considered his arrogance -- not to mention his deft handling of a pitching staff -- earned respect from a group that mutinied under Johnson's successor, Ray Miller, in 1998 and '99.

Hargrove, the Orioles' first $1 million manager, doesn't believe in mind games and is less prone to the managerial showmanship of Johnson (remember Johnson's triple switch against the Braves in '97?). What Hargrove does own is "juice" -- five consecutive division titles and two World Series appearances with the Cleveland Indians, a reputation as a blunt but honest man and a willingness to "let the players play," one veteran's infamous request of Miller during last April's 6-16 meltdown. Hargrove may find Angelos' Byzantine political structure and the team's shadowy front office as much of a challenge as any relationship with a future Hall of Famer.

2. Can Peter Angelos sign Mike Mussina to a contract extension before Opening Day?

The two sides are talking, a positive in itself. But Angelos consistently resists "artificial" deadlines set by players and their agents. Given that Mussina can't become a free agent until after the World Series, those in the B&O warehouse may see no reason to hurriedly bestow the richest contract in franchise history. Only once has Angelos reacted to a player deadline, and that was in 1997 when he agreed with Ripken on a two-year deal only hours before the season opener. (Ripken said he would not negotiate once the season began.)

Mussina agreed to his own three-year extension in May 1997 but was widely criticized by other players and players union officials for settling for less than market value. Given Mussina's insistence that he will not do so again, it seems likely that any resolution will come later rather than sooner.

Angelos extended an opening offer to Mussina last month but, according to a source familiar with the bid, its value did not come close to what one industry analyst projected as a six-year, $72 million "baseline" for a player of Mussina's worth.

3. Who's running the show?

Peter Angelos, with input from his sons, John and Louis, and Thrift. Next question.

4. What's the biggest difference between this spring's team and last year's 78-84 bunch?

Virtually none among position players, little among the starting rotation and a great deal in the bullpen.

The Orioles project an Opening Day lineup identical to last season's. They dabbled with trading Surhoff to the New York Mets, but reconsidered after it was discovered they hadn't obtained the names of the six teams to which Surhoff could veto a trade. Pat Rapp and Jason Johnson will assume roles in the rotation held by Sidney Ponson and Doug Linton at the beginning of '99. Mike Timlin is the only survivor from last season's Opening Day bullpen.

Since last season, the Orioles have surrounded him with free-agent acquisitions Mike Trombley, Buddy Groom, Tim Worrell and veteran left-hander Chuck McElroy, who was acquired from the Mets for Jesse Orosco. Al Reyes and B. J. Ryan, procured in midseason trades, join Timlin as the only remnants from last October.

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