A season of progress has brought the Orioles this far: Instead of asking which veterans to purge, they spend this July contemplating whether to add or subtract.
Four weeks remain before baseball's unofficial trade deadline. Not ready to consider themselves a legitimate playoff contender, the Orioles now ponder whether to accelerate their drive to attain such a label. They do so in a climate promising frantic industry-wide dumping of salaries and a clogged National League chase for the postseason.
Nine days after securing Tony Batista, their third baseman of the near future, the Orioles ponder their next move.
"I think the most imporant thing," says vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrfit, "is to stay on course and not deviate from where we're going."
Thrift and his expanded roster of major-league scouts have compiled evaluations of every organization's Double-A and Triple-A prospects. Rather than seeking dumping grounds for high-salaried players as occurred last July, Thrift suggests a more measured approach. He remains reluctant to part with any of the organization's young pitching.
"All we're tying to do is put together a value system of what things are going to look like in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 based on who we have here and who we'll have [from within the system] in the future," says Thrift. "You can improve from within or improve from without. If you don't have something, then you have to go outside. At the same time, you want to make sure you don't have the same thing inside and end up blocking young people."
By making available pitcher Sidney Ponson, the Orioles could land an impact outfielder such as the Kansas City Royals' Jermaine Dye or the Cincinnati Reds' Dmitri Young. The Orioles also seek to fill a need for an experienced closer, something they have lacked since 1997.
By dealing potential free-agent utility player Jeff Conine or left-handed reliever Buddy Groom, they could further stock their minor-league system. Or Thrift could decide to do neither.
"It all depends on what you have to give up," says Thrift. "If you have to give up too much for a [pending] free agent, you have to make sure he's going to be with you more than a couple months, especially in our position. If you're trying to win a wild card, you may give up more."
On the cusp of another round of labor talks between management and the players' union, numerous organizations are prepared to shed payroll. Having downsized the past two seasons, the Orioles are among the minority of clubs able to exploit the current.
"I think there are still some things we need to do. This is still very much a work in progress," says manager Mike Hargrove. "There are still some things we need to accomplish to get this team to the point where it needs to be."
Hargrove says the club is positioned to make "two or three" trades before next month, but not out of necessity. Unlike last summer when Thrift scrambled to dump cumbersome long-term contracts, it can deal from strength. Cal Ripken's retirement, the 70 percent indemnification of Albert Belle's annual $13 million salary and the expiration of Delino DeShields' three-year contract will afford the Orioles greater financial flexibility. An overachieving year also helps their pursuit of free agents.
Recent lackluster seasons have seen quality players waiting to take flight from the organization - from reliever Randy Myers to second baseman Roberto Alomar to the club's most productive free-agent hire ever, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, and ace Mike Mussina. Last winter the Orioles helped drive the market for free agents Jose Valentin, Kevin Appier and Catonsville native Jeff Nelson only to lose to sometimes lower-bidding clubs.
A promising first half (39-42) based largely upon positive showings by several organizational products has slowly begun to change a popular perception of the Orioles as a dead-in-the-water, dysfunctional organization.
The unexpected addition of Batista without losing a player has changed the outlook of many who might otherwise have expected the team's rebuilding to outlast their contracts.
Conine and Groom reflect the shift. Along with center fielder Melvin Mora, Conine has become the most-sought Orioles position player. But in the midst of a solid offensive season in which he has regained status as an everyday player, Conine prefers to stay. The Orioles, meanwhile, have suggested that they intend to pick up his $3.5 million option for next season.
"I'd have to be overwhelmed" to trade Conine, says Thrift. "We're trying to win, too."
Conine says: "It's been great playing every day again, even if it's at different positions. I like that challenge. If it came down to playing every day with this team or going to a contender as a role player, I'd rather stay here and experience what's down the road."
Groom, who carries a middle reliever's mercenary philosophy, is also hopeful of seeing next season with his current team.