Hargrove, Thrift set agenda for spring

With most roles set, O's to focus on preparation

February 17, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sounding a little tired and a little relieved, Mike Hargrove and Syd Thrift emerged yesterday from the last of three days of meetings at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

This morning, instead of discussing the strengths, weaknesses and physical condition of their 40-man roster and 14 non-roster invitees, the Orioles' new manager and new vice president of baseball operations will welcome pitchers and catchers to a camp supposedly low on suspense but long on discovery. Little time will be devoted to wasted motion.

Thrift promises greater emphasis on conditioning and preparation, and the club plans today to announce a modified structure of Hargrove's coaching staff. Hargrove intends to begin meeting with those players he hasn't spoke to since being hired in November.

"I can say this about Mike: He knows exactly what he wants to do for every segment of the day," Thrift said. "I think it's very positive. I call it `a plan.' "

Hargrove discussed his philosophies regarding everything from tactics to team discipline during the meetings. Thrift presented a sort of report card for each player. Thrift, Hargrove, his coaching staff and other club executives will assess development and conditioning.

"The good news is you have a new manager, new coaches -- they've only seen them from the other side. It's kind of an evaluation, a prescription and an analysis," Thrift said.

Sammy Ellis will introduce himself this morning to his new staff. Ellis becomes the Orioles' seventh pitching coach in as many years, but as former Seattle Mariners pitching coach and former coordinator of pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, he already is familiar with many, especially left-handed reliever B. J. Ryan, acquired from the Reds last July.

"I'm not taking any unusual approach to it," Ellis said. "They've been pitching a long time and I've been coaching a long time. I've done the research I've needed to do. We've had our meetings for three days. Now we go out and watch them throw and observe how they work."

Hargrove offers no pretense about holding a wide-open camp. The only suspense likely will center on who occupies the final spot in the starting rotation and the bullpen, and whether Hargrove remains true to instincts that have traditionally caused him to carry 12 pitchers on Opening Day.

"On paper, you can come up with a good, solid 11. The 12th is still up in the air. And you present it that way," Hargrove said. "[But] I'm not going to say the 12 spots are locked up. I don't believe that There are spots in the rotation and bullpen that are legitimately open. How many? I can't tell you right now."

Just as Ellis follows Bruce Kison and Hargrove succeeds Ray Miller, Thrift represents visible change. Viewed with suspicion by first-year general manager Frank Wren, Thrift was exiled last year to West Palm Beach, Fla., where he served as a de facto scout. With Wren's ouster, Thrift ascended to the organization's most visible decision-making position.

"It requires more time and more days," Thrift said. "Some nights you work until midnight. Some things you try but you keep on going. It never ends. There's no perfect team. But you're always striving for it. How can we get better? What can we do to improve ourselves?"

First, however, comes a matter of contractual housekeeping.

Catcher Charles Johnson, a resident of nearby Pembroke Pines, is expected to report today but may be excused tomorrow to attend his arbitration hearing in Tampa.

Johnson is seeking $5.1 million; the Orioles have offered $4.6 million. If no compromise can be reached beforehand, the club and the four-time Gold Glove catcher will face off for the second time since Johnson was acquired for closer Armando Benitez in a December 1998 three-team trade.

The Orioles beat Johnson last spring, as he received a $3.6 million salary instead of his $5.1 million bid. Citing the development of former first-round draft choice Jayson Werth, Thrift confirmed last week that the team has no intention to open negotiations with Johnson on a contract extension before the end of spring training. Johnson is eligible for free agency after the 2000 season.

Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, said last night that a hearing now appears inevitable despite the relatively small difference between the two positions.

"The club has told me they want no part of a settlement and we're going to hearing," Boras said. "I told [Thrift] we'd be more than amicable to getting something done, but they want to go to hearing. I've told them we think there's ground for settlement but they let me know they don't want to make any offers."

Thrift said the club will announce today its designation of a "working coach" who will not be in uniform during games.

Hargrove's seven-man coaching staff is one more than allowed by Major League Baseball. Since the hiring of Ellis, Jeff Newman and Brian Graham, the Orioles have hedged on the role of Eddie Murray, who served as bench coach under Miller.

"It's a new creation," said Thrift, who had discussed the arrangement with Hargrove and the staff for the past two weeks. "I've told people before we're going to try to maximize the abilities of the people here."

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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