Thrift offers a great deal - of patience

Inside the Orioles

O's VP's trade inaction questioned by observers here, around the league

July 23, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Ten weeks remain in the season. Eight days remain until baseball's waiver deadline, also recognized as D-Day for this year's Orioles.

Discussion has long since waned regarding where the Orioles might finish. The only remaining suspense to this season is where Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Mike Bordick, Charles Johnson and B. J. Surhoff will land. Expected to act as a catalyst for this month's trade activity, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift is either exercising remarkable patience or risking a back draft of public disgust.

"What are they waiting for?" wondered one National League scout last week. "There aren't any secrets any more. Everybody knows they're trying to move their guys. How much better is it going to get?"

The Orioles believe the July 31 waiver deadline will give them additional leverage. However, they appear frustrated on several fronts - especially with ace Mussina, who still insists he will not waive his blanket no-trade clause - and a market hardly smitten with their personnel.

Last July, Erickson might have commanded the potential breakthrough pitcher the Orioles now demand. But instead of that pitcher who manufactured the best second half of any American League pitcher not named Martinez, Erickson continues to struggle with his command. Scouts see a pitcher trying to compensate for lost late movement. Thursday night against the Red Sox, Erickson walked six and threw more balls than strikes in a labored 5 1/3 -inning start. "There's a lot of contract there and some health risk," said one NL scout. "He asks a lot of his arm to get that kind of sink. Right now, it's not there."

Erickson's lesson is instructive in many ways.

The Orioles could have moved him for minor-league pitching earlier this month before he gained veto power over any deal.

Teams are now reluctant to assume the remaining three seasons of Erickson's five-year, $32 million contract - a bargain for a perennial 15-game winner. Any talk of buying out a no-trade clause adds to the difficulty. The Orioles need only recall July 1995 when they acquired Erickson from the Minnesota Twins.

With his value at a career low, the Orioles gave up only pitcher Scott Klingenbeck and outfielder Kimera Bartee. Erickson has since made the deal a larceny, winning 74 games for the Orioles while consuming innings by the gross. However, a combination of contract, inconsistent performance and 5 1/2 -month-old surgery have siphoned much of his value.

The Cleveland Indians retain some interest in Erickson. They have also followed closer Mike Timlin. However, the Indians entered the weekend two games off the AL wild-card lead and must determine if their chances in the postseason justify assuming a contract through 2002 or 2003.

Indians general manager John Hart is said to have several acceptable deals on his desk but will wait as long as possible before pushing the button, according to an executive with one of Hart's potential trading partners.

Recent history provides a reference point. Starters on aging non-contenders are frequently projected as role players for contenders. Delino DeShields and Jeff Conine fit that description. Were he dealt, Brady Anderson would likely enter a left-field platoon. One NL team no longer interested scouted B. J. Surhoff as a backup catcher as well as a left fielder.

Thrift's demands have been called "unrealistic" by several rival general managers who wonder if the Orioles will ultimately lower the price or settle for nothing at all.

"In their position, they've got to move players if they want to get out of their mess," a National League executive said last week. "You cut salary first then remake yourself. With their resources, that's not an impossible task. But you have to be prepared to get what you can for the players you have now and then move on."

Buffeted nightly on local talk shows, Thrift is feeling pressure from several fronts. Majority owner Peter Angelos is an integral part of this process. A recent deal for reliever Darren Holmes already ranks as a disaster. Holmes was released last week after compiling a 25.07 ERA in five games in which he allowed almost as many earned runs (13) as he secured outs (14). Not only did the Orioles assume much of his salary, they also owe St. Louis a player to be named.

"That's like wrecking your car and still having to make payments," one clubhouse member said.

Bordick's value has been complicated by the sudden availability of Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, a pending free agent.

The Orioles, meanwhile, continue to ponder offering Bordick a two-year extension.

Thrift has said repeatedly he will not be forced into a deal before the waiver deadline and suggested he could become more active in August. Thrift even wrangled an on-air wager from WBAL talk show host Steve Melewski that he would do an August deal. However, such moves are usually minor. Contending teams are no longer willing to allow impact players to coast through waivers. A waiver claim can serve as a catalyst as it did when the Orioles dealt Harold Baines to the Indians last Aug. 27 for minor-league pitchers Juan Aracena and Jimmy Hamilton.

"Those guys are going to do what they want to do. I have no control over Peter Angelos, Joe Foss and Syd Thrift. So why worry about it?" said Orioles first baseman Will Clark, a rookie in 1986. "But trades have changed. When I first got into this game, trades were made to win. Now they're all about money."

Money the Orioles have got. Right now, timing, vision and a steady hand are essential.

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