All-around O's malaise begs for change

May 25, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Tis the season. Hot weather is coming, the Orioles are entrenched in fourth place, trade rumors are sprouting and it's time for the question that seems to get asked almost every year around now:

Is breaking up (the Orioles) so hard to do?

Shouldn't be. Not this year.

Even though the season is barely one-fourth over, the team is old, the playoffs are a long-odds proposition and the Orioles would be foolish not to consider any sensible trade in which veterans are swapped for prospects.

Sure, guaranteed contracts and no-trade clauses will get in the way, as always, and it's hard to say which veterans, if any, will get targeted. Possible deals involving B.J. Surhoff and Brady Anderson made headlines the other day. Look for other deals involving those and other players in the coming weeks.

The Orioles' recent habit is to contemplate such moves and then balk at making them, stubbornly viewing the glass as half-full and the playoffs as a reasonable goal, regardless of what the standings say.

To do so again this year, passing up a chance to get younger, would be a mistake.

Even if the Orioles start playing better, they aren't going to catch the Red Sox and Yankees, meaning their playoff chances fall somewhere between miniscule and even smaller.

With that in mind, the organization's approach to all possible deals should be, "Let's see what we can do."

True, maybe the week before Memorial Day is a little early to make such pronouncements, especially given the Orioles' long history of slow starts and fast finishes dating to Earl Weaver's days.

If the bad-to-the-bone bullpen had blown just half as many games - still a lot - the club would be over .500, no one would be talking about how awful things are going and there'd be no trade rumors.

All of which begs the question: If the bullpen is the problem, why break up the rest of the club?

Because it's more than just the bullpen. Way more. Despite what the numbers say.

As tempting as it is to blame the Orioles' 19-25 record on just the bullpen, the club's problems are more numerous. There's the general mediocrity on defense, a shortcoming evident all too often. There's the lack of speed, a problem for several years. There's the age, which leads to injuries.

Most of all, there's the reality that the club is neither horrid nor terrific, just average. At best. And clearly going nowhere.

It wasn't a coincidence that the Red Sox swept four games from the Orioles at Camden Yards a couple of weeks ago, or that the Yankees won two of three at Yankee Stadium before that.

Those are quality teams with quality pitching staffs, the American League's two lowest team ERAs. The Orioles can't hit them and can't beat them. Couldn't do it last year, can't this year.

Why, the Yankees aren't even playing worth a hoot this year. The're hitting as weak as a second-division club with a low payroll. But the Orioles are still already seven games behind them in the standings. What happens when the Yankees start hitting?

Sure, the playing field is more level against the rest of the league, teams such as the Angels and Mariners and the various small-market clubs that aren't even trying to win. The Orioles can play with them, win some and lose some. That should keep their record from getting too ugly.

But the larger perspective is needed. Regardless of their record, the Orioles clearly aren't anywhere close to their wire-to-wire performance level of 1997, the level required to get a team into the playoffs and beyond.

That being the case, there's really no reason not to jump into the trade market and get busy trying to get younger, faster and ultimately better.

Owner Peter G. Angelos is opposed to such overhauls, of course, fearful of basing his ticket prices on a certain talent level and then giving fans less than they'd expected or paid for. It's a reasonable concern.

But the fans can see what's happening, and at this point it's doubtful many, if any, would complain if the Orioles unloaded a couple of popular mainstays for the sake of strengthening their future.

The "If You Rebuild It, They Will Come" sign was back at Camden Yards last night in the wake of the trade rumors surfacing, basically a promise from one fan to Angelos not to forsake the team if it's taken apart and put back together.

Plenty of fans would make the same pledge, no doubt. Anything but the dreary cycle the club is stuck in now.

There's never going to be a major rebuilding, of course. There's really no use even discussing it. Angelos just isn't going to do it. He wants to win sooner than later, yadda, yadda, yadda. His team will always have a payroll and some name players.

But at this point, it makes no sense to ignore the Orioles' status relative to the Yankees and Red Sox and pretend something substantive still can be gained this year. That's just a pipe dream.

What really can be gained are prospects from other teams, the new blood that's needed, if the deals make sense and all the moons are aligned.

Is there any reason not to do it?

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