O's still must make a deal for the future

July 04, 2000|By John Eisenberg

A win over the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday at Camden Yards would have pulled the Orioles within 6 1/2 games of first place and completed a four-game sweep of the American League East leaders. Pretty encouraging stuff.

Almost encouraging enough to cause the front office to forget about dealing a veteran or two before the trading deadline at the end of the month.

In that sense, the Blue Jays' 6-4 win behind 14-game winner David Wells was a necessary tonic, even though the Orioles still finished one of their best weeks of the season with a 5-2 record against two teams ahead of them in the standings.

The Orioles have a history of inventing excuses not to pull the lever on a midseason shake-up that would make the club younger, faster and probably better down the line, and until yesterday's loss, which dropped the Orioles back to 8 1/2 out, their success against Boston and Toronto was starting to shape up as this year's model.

But even with their success of the past week, the Orioles are still 10 games under .500 and entrenched in fourth place a week before the All-Star break.

They are still the prototype of a disappointing veteran team that needs to be taken apart and put back together.

No matter what happens in the coming weeks, to paraphrase The Who, they shouldn't get fooled again.

Hot weeks come and go, but a team with a 12-32 road record, a highly flammable bullpen and obvious shortcomings just isn't worth preserving, even if the Yankees and Red Sox are struggling this year, giving hope to the downtrodden.

The Orioles' failure to deal in this situation is one of the main reasons they're in such a predicament now, stuck in a losing cycle going on three years, with one of the oldest and slowest teams in the game.

This is the time of year when organizations dangle the kind of young talent the Orioles have long needed to bring depth to their system and offset their age, and the Orioles' history of balking instead of dealing has forced them to rely on middle-aged free agents and a farm system that hasn't produced a position player in a decade.

You can check the standings to see how that's working out.

That's why, even though they aren't 30 games out this year, as they were at the All-Star break in 1998, the Orioles can't balk at dealing this year even if they stay hot in New York and Philadelphia this week.

OK, maybe vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift isn't the right guy to oversee a major overhaul. The bullpen he put together hasn't exactly thrived.

But that shouldn't stop the club from being aggressive in the trade market. Look at what the Indians got from the Yankees for David Justice, a slugger with maybe a couple of years left. The Indians got young outfielder Ricky Ledee and a couple of prospects, help for the future as well as the present. Think the Orioles could have benefited from that?

Just look at the difference a little youth and speed made yesterday with youngster Luis Matos gobbling up acres in right field, a sight that elicited cheers at Camden Yards.

The Orioles have previously resisted making changes during the season primarily because owner Peter G. Angelos doesn't want to sell 3.5 million tickets and then give his customers a watered-down product, a justifiable concern.

But after several years of losing with free agents, the fans are almost desperate to see a jolt of youth and electricity in any form, even in a prospect such as Matos, who almost certainly isn't ready to hit major-league pitching.

True, it's almost a certainty that attendance would decline if the team embarks on the "transition" to youth that needs to happen, but at this point, the club just has to accept that and follow through on the idea for the long-term good of the franchise.

In a solid baseball town with patient fans who love watching young players develop, the hit might not be as bad as Angelos fears.

And hey, it's not as if the alternative of watching a grumpy veteran team continue to run hot and cold is particularly enticing.

No, that doesn't mean the Orioles should just deal Scott Erickson, B. J. Surhoff or Mike Bordick for the heck of it. In fact, they shouldn't deal at all if they don't like what they're getting in return.

Oh, and they absolutely, positively shouldn't even think about dealing Charles Johnson, who is on a 30-homer pace after hitting another yesterday and is only one of the best catchers in the game under 30. Just forget who his agent is and sign him to a contract for five years or whatever he wants. He's that good, and is there any alternative?

But in the meantime, keep running up a phone bill talking to other teams and listening to what they're offering in return for any veterans they think can help them get to the playoffs. That's when the good deals come down.

Win or lose in the coming weeks, the Orioles need to be aggressive. It's needed and wanted and, well, it's just time.

This year, no excuses.

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