No question, Orioles look for answers

After dismal first half, team left wondering which way to turn

Time for O's to get younger?

Mussina eyes options

Thrift aiming for 2001

July 13, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Even though he can't tell the future, Mike Mussina can talk about it.

The Orioles put a 38-48 first half behind them tonight when they begin a three-game interleague series against the defending National League champion Atlanta Braves. Like many others within his clubhouse, Mussina wonders what lies in front of him.

A pending free agent who says he will not waive his blanket no-trade protection even if negotiations on a contract extension continue to falter, Mussina concedes the time has arrived for him to begin considering other options.

"At some point, you have to," the Orioles ace said last weekend. "I'd like to stay. They know that. But at the same time, you have to prepare yourself. My family knows this could be our last year here. I'm certainly not the first player to be in this situation even though it's really the first time for me. You have to face the reality of the situation."

For a third consecutive July, the Orioles are left to wonder why higher expectations have given way to a dismal first-half record, why a supposedly upgraded pitching staff has frayed and whether the time is right to begin taking apart the game's oldest clubhouse.

"You try not to worry about what's in front of you. You can't. You only worry about the next game," said left fielder B.J. Surhoff, who endured an unusually inconsistent first half and persistent trade speculation before settling at .280 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs.

"We can only go out and play. The front office is going to do what it's going to do. Those aren't our decisions to make."

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift has continued to explore trades involving catcher Charles Johnson and starting pitcher Scott Erickson, among others. Little more than two weeks remain before baseball's unwritten trade deadline and few expect the team to retain its shape.

As many theories abound about how the Orioles got here as where they should now proceed. What some see as a veteran presence others construe as a stale mix.

The refrain still holds: The Orioles haven't developed an everyday position player for themselves since Cal Ripken a generation ago. ("I'd say that's unusual in most places," admits Surhoff, who hasn't seen a prospect blossom since arriving in Baltimore in 1995. "I wouldn't say rare, but unusual.")

However, with the arrival of promising 21-year-old outfielder Luis Matos, third-base prospect Ryan Minor and 24-year-old second baseman Jerry Hairston, the club has a rare opportunity to get a glimpse at its future while seeking to add depth.

"We have to see Ryan Minor play," Thrift said after Ripken landed on the disabled list with nerve inflammation last month. Yet Minor was almost immediately lost with a strained muscle near his rib cage and may return no sooner than Ripken.

Thrift has compiled folders on every team's prospects and is emphasizing 2001 rather than this season. He has approached the New York Yankees about shortstop prospect Alfonso Soriano, discussed packages that include Cleveland Indians third baseman/outfielder Russell Branyon and catcher Einar Diaz, and pondered Atlanta Braves left-handed pitcher Bruce Chen, who was traded to the Phillies yesterday.

Taking contract considerations into account, scouts typically assign value to the Orioles in the following order: Mussina (if available), All-Star shortstop Mike Bordick, Johnson, Erickson, Surhoff, Jeff Conine, Brady Anderson and relievers Mike Timlin, Mike Trombley and Chuck McElroy.

The Orioles are deliberating whether to approach Bordick, a pending free agent, about a two-year extension, including an option for 2003, when he would turn 38. Timlin and Trombley, both of whom saved more than 20 games last season, are signed to bulky contracts through 2002.

Surhoff's contract includes a partial no-trade provision which does not cover the Yankees. Having already dealt for another left-handed-hitting left fielder, David Justice, the Yankees may go for more of the same after an injury to Shane Spencer.

"If you're being mentioned in a possible trade, you try to look at it as a positive," Conine said. "It means somebody pretty good thinks you can help them win."

Thrift calculates demand will only increase between now and the July 31 waiver deadline. Majority owner Peter Angelos insisted last week there will be no "fire sale" in which veterans are exchanged for only prospects. The stance caused the club to pause before trading Erickson before the right-hander gained veto power over any trade July 6. Erickson remains open to a deal, according to his agents, but any move now likely will be complicated by compensating him for waiving his no-trade privilege. The club also hopes Erickson's performance the next two weeks will convince teams he is past any ill effects from March 3 surgery to remove fragments from his right elbow.

Erickson could also seek to renegotiate the remainder of his five-year, $34 million contract signed in May 1998.

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