O's sell-off has garnered only minor capital gains

March 16, 2001|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- You can debate the results. In fact, given what has happened in the seven-plus months since the Orioles' flurry of trades last July, you have to debate the results.

You also can question the club for claiming that the sell-off of expensive veterans inaugurated a youth movement when, in fact, the Orioles still have one of baseball's oldest lineups.

But here's another question: Even knowing all that, would you rather have the same, old (and we do mean old), overpaid, underachieving Orioles from 1999 and 2000 in camp this spring, or would you rather have what's here, a somewhat more modestly paid club that, at the very least, has some new blood and a few building blocks?

That's easy. However flawed it might be, the new club is preferable to the old club, which was playing cheap-plastic baseball at fine-china prices and desperately calling for the wrecking ball.

Something had to give.

But look what happened when it did.

Thus does the great conflict about the Orioles crystallize as they bake under a warm sun and slowly work themselves into shape for the 2001 season while playing winning baseball in the Grapefruit League.

In the larger sense, they're finally on the right course.

But given the current braintrust's track record, who has faith in their ability to stay on track?

Letting Mike Mussina get away to the Yankees certainly wasn't a positive sign, seeing as he obviously was willing to stay until near the end of his protracted negotiating season.

The decision to sign 32-, 34- and 35-year-old free agents last winter didn't engender any more faith in the front office, although Pat Hentgen, David Segui and Mike Bordick are all solid players who were added to make the club more competitive in 2001.

And while it's still too soon to assess the overall success or failure of the veteran sell-off last July, there's no denying that some, um, problems have arisen.

Of the 14 players obtained, three have something in common this spring: Luis Rivera, Mark Nussbeck and Pat Gorman are all pitchers who have undergone season-ending surgery to fix arm or shoulder ailments. Rivera was the key player obtained from Atlanta in exchange for B. J. Surhoff.

Blame it on bad luck or bad homework, but either way, it's bad news. Throw in released outfielder Trenidad Hubbard, and four of the 14 players obtained last July are out of the picture in 2001. The total could rise by Opening Day with catcher Fernando Lunar and Mike Kinkade on the roster bubble and out of minor-league options. And remember, pitcher Leslie Brea was advertised as 21, has admitted to being 26 and might be older.

OK, yes, there is good news, too. Chris Richard, obtained from the Cardinals, looks like a find. Richard in right field and Melvin Mora in center means two-thirds of the Opening Day outfield was obtained last July.

Elsewhere, catcher Brook Fordyce is popular with the pitchers and guaranteed to work as hard as anyone, although he isn't in departed catcher Charles Johnson's class. And whatever his age, Brea throws hard and could end up in the bullpen.

But that's it, the sum of what you might see in 2001 in exchange for Surhoff, Johnson, Bordick, Will Clark and Mike Timlin.

Sure, other acquisitions are burbling in the minors such as pitchers Juan Figueroa and Jason Lakman, and if any develop, or if Rivera makes a strong comeback from surgery, the picture brightens.

If, if, if.

Just a hunch, but in the end, the sell-off will be viewed as important more for what it signified than for any tangible gains it harvested. The Orioles had to blow up what they had, and they did. They had to change their calculus away from a free-agent driven equation, and they have. Manager Mike Hargrove said Wednesday the club would consider keeping young players over veterans when possible this year because, he said, "that's the whole idea of this thing."

Some interesting young players are creeping into the mix for the first time in recent memory; not just the well-known prospects such as Keith Reed and Ed Rogers, but unknown pitchers such as Jorge Julio and Willis Roberts, the latter a 25-year-old minor-league free agent with an eye-popping arm.

Syd Thrift, the club's vice president for baseball operations, insists the club is going to stay the course.

"The hardest thing I did last winter was not sign some free-agent pitchers with average major-league records who could have come in and pitched all right, but blocked some of the younger guys," he said.

It's easy to say that now. What happens in the next 18 months will reveal more than what anyone says. The club still has a veteran-dominated lineup, but the contracts of Cal Ripken, Jeff Conine and Delino DeShields are up after this season, and those of Bordick, Hentgen, Brady Anderson and Buddy Groom are up after next season. The Orioles can almost completely reinvent themselves in a relatively short span.

But even if they finally are adhering to the right philosophy of blending young players with veterans, can they be trusted to successfully put together the pieces of such a complicated puzzle?

A lot of fans are going to wait to see it before they believe it, as well they should.

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