O's should face reality, aim for 2001

February 23, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

"I think it's accurate to say that the window of opportunity for this group may be narrowing." -- former Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone, April 1998.

"I think we'll be looking to spread our wings in 2001. I believe by 2001, almost the entire team will be composed of players that are at the Triple-A or Double-A level now." -- Orioles owner Peter Angelos, June 1999.

An aging team in 1998, a youthful team in 2001.

What should that make 2000?

A transition season.

But once again, it will start off as anything but.

The Orioles aren't as old as they were two years ago, when the average age of their Opening Day roster projected to 34 years, 64 days at the end of the regular season.

Their average age this season likely will be two years younger -- better, but still nearly a full year older than the 1945 Detroit Tigers, the oldest team to win the World Series.

The window of opportunity didn't just narrow on the Orioles in 1998 and '99 -- it slammed shut. Yet, the front office continues to assemble veteran talent, trying to create the illusion of contention.

One can argue that the Orioles have no other choice, with their roster largely inflexible and their farm system largely unproductive. One also can argue that 3 million ticket buyers are entitled to the best team money can buy.

Perhaps the Orioles can't be expected to surrender in spring training, not with a new manager and new bullpen. But Angelos has yet to grasp that teams that try to win every year often don't win in any year.

Two years ago, the Orioles had every reason to take one more shot -- they were coming off back-to-back appearances in the American League Championship Series.

But now that they're coming off back-to-back sub-.500 seasons, is it right that only one of their off-season moves was designed to clear a spot for a younger player?

The trade of Jeff Reboulet should create a utility-infield job for Jesse Garcia or Jerry Hairston. And yes, the revamped bullpen is expected to include B. J. Ryan. But for now, that's as far as the Orioles can -- or will -- go.

Their contract burden should ease after this season, with only seven players signed for 2001. But there's little to suggest that Angelos is willing to get younger -- or that the Orioles even have enough prospects to field such a team.

Former GM Pat Gillick used to say that a contender should mix in one young player each season, and Ryan looks to be this year's Sidney Ponson. But once the Orioles fall out of contention, they should expand their youth movement, and stop thinking they can catch the Yankees.

Indeed, if the Orioles truly were looking to "spread their wings in 2001," they would be planning to start Hairston, 23, and keep right-hander Calvin Maduro, 25 -- at the very minimum.

Hairston proved he could play second base at this level last season. Maduro, second in the International League in strikeouts, is out of options. But the odds appear stacked against both players.

Other potential major leaguers -- outfielder Eugene Kingsale, first baseman Calvin Pickering, third baseman Ryan Minor, left-hander Matt Riley and right-hander Jose Mercedes -- either aren't ready, or never will be.

But if the Orioles weren't so terrified of empty seats at Camden Yards, they might think the time was right for say, Kingsale and Mercedes. Think about it -- if they stumble again, attendance might suffer, anyway.

"Our commitment to young players is to make sure they get a very good look and feel like they've had an opportunity to make this ballclub," Orioles director of player development Syd Thrift said yesterday.

"If they don't, then they can go to Rochester and prepare to be better baseball players. Sometimes, we rush players too fast. It's a huge jump from Rochester to Baltimore playing in front of 43,000 people. Huge."

That's a fair point, especially when you consider the difficulties Riley experienced in jumping from Double-A to the majors last season. Riley, the Orioles' top prospect, needs to spend a full season at Triple-A -- period.

Catcher Jayson Werth also needs to be brought along slowly, but the Orioles might push him to justify their pending divorce with Charles Johnson -- a doubly bizarre move, considering that Johnson is their only position player under 30.

Werth, at least, would represent a breakthrough for an organization that still eats its young -- witness the off-season signings of designated hitter Harold Baines (soon to be 41) and pitchers Pat Rapp (32) and Tim Worrell (32).

The issue is not whether Baines can still play -- of course he can. He's 27 homers short of 400. He's the career RBI leader among active players. He's coming off his first All-Star appearance since 1991.

He just isn't the right fit for this team, that's all.

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