THE MOST significant move the Orioles made yesterday wasn't the trade that sent reliever Mike Trombley to the Dodgers for a couple of players.
The most significant move, from which much can be read, was the club's decision to hold onto cleanup hitter Jeff Conine.
It's the first step in the warehouse's plan to field a more interesting and competitive team in 2002, a plan that includes taking a heavy dip in the free-agent waters over the winter and, at least to some degree, relying less on the much-trumpeted youth movement to which the club had committed.
Organizational patience obviously is beginning to expire on that experiment as the team heads for a dismal end to the 2001 season, with prospects for 2002 little better.
The Orioles might want you to believe they're still intent on going young at all costs, but when you factor in the negatives of Cal Ripken's pending retirement and the sagging 2001 team being on a pace to lose 95 games, a trip back to the roiling seas of big-money free agency is virtually assured at this point - if the free agents are willing to come to Baltimore, of course, unlike last off-season.
How can so much be read from the decision not to trade Conine? Because although he is a solid, versatile veteran and, by all accounts, a pleasure to have around, there was only one reason for the Orioles to keep him: to help them win next season, as opposed to any season beyond that.
Conine, 35, is only under contract through 2002 (the club holds an option for next season that is certain to be picked up), and although he is playing well this season, it's doubtful he would be re-signed after next season, especially by an organization truly committed to a full-fledged youth movement.
Putting it more bluntly, at his age, he almost certainly would be gone by the time any such movement began to pay dividends.
Knowing that, and also knowing that Conine is hitting almost 30 points over his career average as he thrives in the cleanup slot this year, this was the perfect time to deal him. His value certainly will never be higher.
Why didn't the Orioles pull the lever on a deal?
"I would have if I'd been overwhelmed [by an offer], but all I got was underwhelmed," Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday.
It's true Conine probably wouldn't have commanded more than a single, decent prospect in return - the market for 35-year-old position players usually doesn't bear franchise-altering players in return. So in a sense, the issue was a lot of fuss about, well, not that much.
But as usual with the Orioles, you can read between the lines - and the reading is interesting, indeed, in this case.
Make no mistake, after what's happened in the past month, the organization is set to take a run at a handful of free agents and put a higher-paid, more-experienced team (remember those?) on the field next season along with a smaller handful of youngsters, and the front office saw Conine as a natural, useful fit in such a scenario. That's why he didn't get traded.
"I said all along that I wanted one more [Conine], not one less and one more," Thrift said.
One more 35-year-old? Does that sound like a team willing to take its lumps on the field and at the gate for yet another season while waiting for a new generation to flower?
Even more to the point, here's what Thrift said when asked about 2002: "I feel good about where we are, although that doesn't make sense if you look at our won-loss record. But [add] an impact player here, [and] an impact player there, and the whole picture changes."
Impact players? There's your ultimate evidence. Thrift isn't talking about a Chris Richard or a Jay Gibbons, young players just emerging. He's talking about proven commodities, top-of-the-line free agents such as Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Moises Alou, Chan Ho Park, Bret Boone and Aaron Sele, to name just a few of the players who will be on the market after this season.
Whether the Orioles can talk any of them into coming is another matter, of course. Several free agents left better deals from the Orioles on the table to go elsewhere last winter, leading Thrift to suggest in frustration, memorably, that he felt like he was offering "Confederate money."
Thrift just smiled when he was reminded of the comment yesterday and asked if he thought things might go better in the coming off-season. The Orioles certainly have the room to move in their payroll structure for the first time in several years. And there's no doubt they could use, oh, every one of those free agents mentioned.
As it is, they need a leadoff hitter, a No. 3 hitter, a No. 4 hitter, at least one left-handed starting pitcher, another right-handed starter, a closer, a new outfield defensively - a list of needs too long for an organization that's just beginning to produce major-leaguers again after almost two decades of darkness, and an organization that hasn't set any records for patience in the past decade.
If the Orioles were going to try to fill those needs with young players, as part of a slow-growth plan, Conine probably would be playing for another team today. But he's not. He's going to play for the Orioles this season and also next season, at which point, safe to say, they will no longer be urging fans to "come see the kids."