O's adrift on a sea of indecision

June 23, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

OpDeal 2000 is approaching faster than a tall ship, and the Orioles still haven't shown that they know how to point a rudder in the proper direction.

They are two weeks away from losing the right to trade right-hander Scott Erickson without his permission. They are 5 1/2 weeks away from the July 31 deadline for completing trades without waivers.

Can a crew consisting of three men named Angelos and one man named Thrift successfully navigate through such turbulent, challenging waters and keep the S.S. Warehouse afloat?

The Orioles' idea of a proactive move is making special assistant Bruce Manno, a holdover from the Frank Wren regime, walk the plank. Meanwhile, the loss of Mike Mussina could infect their entire organization with scurvy.

Ahoy! Is anybody out there?

While the Orioles remain anchored in fourth place, former shipbuilder George Steinbrenner is proceeding with his plan to obtain a slugging deckhand, and reportedly has reached a tentative agreement with Detroit on a 3-for-1 trade for Juan Gonzalez.

A major-league source said yesterday that the Yankees submitted trade proposals for both Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa, telling officials of their respective teams, "Whoever bites first, the deal is done."

The deal isn't done yet - Gonzalez must agree to waive his no-trade clause to the Yankees and sign a contract extension yet within 72 hours.

But even if the trade collapses, the Yankees can return their attention to Sosa, who reportedly is Steinbrenner's preference, anyway.

The players the Yankees would send Detroit are outfielder Ricky Ledee, third-base prospect Drew Henson and minor-league left- hander Randy Keisler. And they still could dangle shortstop Alfonso Soriano for a pitcher before the July 31 deadline.

Henson would be the principal attraction for the Tigers, but the University of Michigan quarterback might choose football over baseball.

Either way, the Yankees would be taking a bold step, especially since no other team appears seriously interested in Gonzalez or Sosa.

Name the last time the Orioles were this aggressive, this creative.

Name the last time they dealt from a position of strength.

This is a team that reportedly declined to trade Jeffrey Hamx monds for Shawn Green in '97, then dealt Hammonds for Willie Greene in '98. And now the impact of such decisions is taking its toll.

The Orioles finally seem ready to trade veterans for prospects, but they're at least two years too late. What's more, they will need to overcome numerous obstacles to successfully retool, many - but not all - of their own making.

Aging veterans like Will Clark and Harold Baines would bring little in return. Costly relievers like Mike Timlin and Mike Trombley might be difficult to move. Marketable talents like Mussina and B.J. Surhoff have complete or limited no-trade protection.

Even players with seemingly obvious appeal might not be as attractive as the Orioles would like to believe.

Take Erickson, for example.

On July 7, he will gain complete no-trade protection as a 10-year veteran with five years of major- league service. The Orioles aren't required to trade him. They probably shouldn't trade him. But this might be their last chance.

Then again, how valuable is Erickson when his ERA is 6.88 and he's allowing nearly two baserunners per inning?

True, he is signed through 2003 at a relatively modest salary. True, many contenders are desperate for inning-eating starters who can protect their bullpens. But consider an Erickson deal from the standpoint of Cleveland, perhaps the team that is most interested in him.

The Indians don't want to trade catcher Einar Diaz with Sandy Alomar Jr. eligible for free agency. They don't want to trade outfielder Richie Sexson with Manny Ramirez eligible for free agency. And they don't want to trade power-hitting third baseman Russell Branyan after losing Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey and Brian Giles in ill-advised deals.

Of course, they might trade the Orioles one or more of those players if Mussina would agree to waive his no-trade clause. But Erickson might not be a difference-maker in a rotation that already includes Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Dave Burba. And the Indians probably would offer only lesser prospects in return.

The New York Mets are another team that could pursue Erickson, and they are expected to scout him tonight in Seattle. In fact, the Mets also could be interested in Mike Bordick now that their starting shortstop, Rey Ordonez, is out for the season.

Eureka!

The Orioles could trade Bordick for a package including first baseman Jorge Toca, a Cuban defector who was the Mets' minor-league player of the year last season.

The acquisition of Toca would prove Angelos does not discriminate against Cubans, and the Orioles' problems on Capitol Hill would end.

But again, nothing is as easy as it appears.

Bordick is in the middle of a career year. The Orioles don't have a shortstop to replace him. And they might not receive a strong-enough proposal to trade him, especially when they hold an option on his contract for next season.

If anything, Bordick's value likely will be depressed because teams such as the Mets and Arizona Diamondbacks will view him as nothing more than a rental while they prepare major off-season bids for free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

Put it all together, and the only Oriole who might be traded is Scott Boras client Charles Johnson, who just happens to be the only regular under 30 for a team that supposedly is trying to get younger.

Even the keenest baseball minds would encounter difficulty charting the proper course for the Orioles. And Thrift, Angelos and Angelos' two sons have yet to show that they can devise and implement a creative, coherent blueprint.

OpDeal 2000 is upon us.

The Orioles could be left at the dock, even if they're ready to set sail.

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