Thrift's game plan -- make team younger

Inside the Orioles

Personnel VP agrees youth infusion needed, but deals are difficult

May 28, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Syd Thrift has a vision.

And according to the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, it's confirmed every time he boards a flight at BWI or is recognized by someone who bleeds orange-and-black elsewhere. "Every time I talk to people in an airport, they tell me the same thing: You guys need to get younger."

Thrift is now a man of the people on this one.

His third-floor conference room is strewn with 29 stuffed folders, one for every other major-league club. He and his staff have accumulated the needs of every team, the surpluses of their player development systems and notes from previous conversations with general managers. He also retains notes from his seven scouts. Here is where he hopes to begin.

"You know that you need speed and throwing arms. You need to get younger. That's a fact. That doesn't mean you can put a team of 23- and 24-year-olds there," says Thrift.

"You need to have a plan."

Ah, The Plan. Thrift has insisted one exists ever since last January when he instructed an inquiring loyalist at FanFest that the team's direction was "onward and upward."

Now the Orioles have to put up, and once again that necessitates a baseball executive convincing the majority owner that a step back might result in three steps forward. Others have tried and failed at professional cost. Thrift, a contemporary of Peter Angelos' who has maintained favor since joining the club in 1995, might have the best chance of anyone.

He immersed himself in just such a project with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid-1980s, dumping veterans such as Jason Thompson and Larry McWilliams to make room for players developed within the system. Thrift left the Pirates in 1988 but his legacy remained as the small-market franchise won three consecutive NL East titles from 1990 through 1992.

"This is tougher than Pittsburgh," he says, "because contracts weren't as much a factor then. We have guys who are difficult to move because of what they make."

The Orioles have cost themselves significant leverage due to blanket no-trade clauses awarded Mike Mussina, Albert Belle, Brady Anderson, B.J. Surhoff and Scott Erickson. Surhoff and Erickson enjoy only partial no-trade protection but it was enough to sabotage trade talks involving Surhoff last winter. (Though Thrift insists he had no intention of trading Surhoff, the All-Star left fielder's image was replaced by Cal Ripken's on all winter promotional materials for fear he might be dealt.)

Club sources say Thrift has discussed a deal that would send pending free-agent catcher Charles Johnson to the Houston Astros. The Cleveland Indians have a long-standing interest in Erickson and now face a pitching crisis because of injuries. The New York Yankees have inquired about Surhoff and Anderson.

But if the plan is to tear up the clubhouse, other questions present themselves. In what sequence? Which pending free agents can be signed? Which are desirable?

"You've got to know what you can get," Thrift says. "And you must know what you have a chance to get. You've got to think about 2001, 2002, 2003. At the same time, you're not forgetting about 2000. I don't want that misunderstood, because every day you're playing to win. I think that you take one step at a time. You get one position at a time."

One personality that can't be subtracted belongs to Angelos. Team direction has traditionally been dictated by the club's win-loss record over the previous two weeks. Two weeks ago, Angelos became enraged while watching his team's 10-1 collapse against Boston from his Camden Yards bunker. Now, with the team having reversed a2-15 slide with a three-game sweep of Seattle, hope may sprout anew. And there are pragmatic concerns as well.

"If we trade Charles Johnson, then who catches?" Thrift asks, repeating a question asked by legions of Orioles fans.

Thrift said he doesn't believe the organization needs to "sell" its fan base on any youth movement. All he has to do is listen to talk radio or the folks on the street.

"I don't think we have to sell that at all," Thrift says. "I think that's a slam-dunk. That was David Delucci for me. That was Jerry Hairston last fall."

Thrift winced when the Orioles lost Delucci to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the expansion draft following the 1997 season. He noticed the infectious enthusiasm for Hairston with the Orioles a non-factor in last season's race.

"When someone sees a game ... two years afterward most people won't remember what the score is but they'll be able to tell you one play, one catch or one hit from that game," says Thrift.

It is Thrift's way of saying he is looking for players with outstanding tools.

He references a one-time Pirates leadoff hitter named Barry Bonds and Texas Rangers rookie Ruben Mateo, who on the day of his arrival to The Ballpark in Arlington brought along the best center-field arm in the game. "When I talk to people," he says, "I'm talking about 2001."

For all their talk about a much-improved player development system, the Orioles sorely lack position players at Bowie or Rochester with dominant tools. Former general manager Frank Wren attempted to restock their pitching stock last summer via trades. Now Thrift will attempt to do the same for his position players.

Asked about the possibility that the Orioles could open next season with all current players either gone or playing new positions, Thrift described it as at "the end of the spectrum." However, with Johnson, Mike Bordick, Will Clark and Harold Baines facing free agency, Cal Ripken pondering retirement, Surhoff available for trade and Albert Belle and Anderson seen as strong candidates for position switches, the concept may not be that far-fetched. Thrift thinks about it every time he boards a plane.

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