Injury explanation only part of it

Inside the Orioles

Lack of depth, few givens for 2002 don't bode well

September 23, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos dropped a "non-story" on WBAL Radio Monday by telling his compliant rights holder that vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and manager Mike Hargrove would be retained for a third season in their current positions.

In the midst of what may well become the franchise's first 100-loss season since 1988, the characterization is a curious one. Hiring and firing is at the discretion of the owner - a fact repeatedly instilled on the Orioles' fan base - but in this case it was Angelos' early notice of no changes that surprised many both inside and outside the front office.

Angelos called Thrift's and Hargrove's retention "a non-story" Thursday because he never considered firing either one. "I thought under difficult circumstances they did reasonably well, considering we had numerous injuries," he said.

A team that found itself 40-47 at the All-Star break now cites injuries to David Segui, Pat Hentgen, Mike Bordick and even Albert Belle as its mantra to explain an unprecedented second-half meltdown. While Angelos uses the situation to explain a lack of turnover, Thrift cites it in couching any public evaluation of position players who have at times appeared overmatched.

"We're not playing just to lose baseball games here. We're not playing to lose," Thrift said. "We've had some unusual things happen ... unfortunate things as far as the disabled list."

No one can dispute that injuries have created a powerful undertow to this season. "If I could put all our players on the field who've been on the disabled list, we would have a much different take on the results this season," Thrift said. "It would be the same as having an eight-cylinder engine running on three or four cylinders."

But this season's injuries only reinforced suggestions that the Orioles suffer from woeful organizational depth after receiving a poor return on their flurry of trades in July 2000. Again, injuries tint Thrift's read of players exposed by greater player time.

"I don't think you can evaluate players fairly and honestly in a situation they normally would never have been put in. Maybe you had rookie players exposed to this or exposed to that. It's unfair," Thrift said.

Asked on Wednesday who among the Orioles' imported players had met or exceeded expectations this season, Hargrove answered more directly by listing six pitchers.

Thrift said Friday there are few givens for next season - as close to an admission of disappointment as he will come. Friday's waiver claim of 28-year-old third baseman Casey Blake from the Minnesota Twins intensified questions about the club's reliance on Tony Batista, considered the heir to Ripken when he was claimed from the Toronto Blue Jays in June but now a $10.4 million salary commitment for 2002-2003.

Queried about Batista's future role, Thrift replied, "We haven't said anything about anybody."

The Orioles intended the July 2000 clubhouse purge to be a major first step in reshaping what had been a creaky, dour clubhouse while also moving them toward self-sufficiency as an organization. Little that has happened in Camden Yards this season suggests progress toward the second goal.

Pitching prospect Juan Figueroa, a significant component in the 14-month-old trade that sent Charles Johnson to the Chicago White Sox, was designated for assignment Friday to make room for Blake. Right-hander Leslie Brea, described as the pivotal talent in the trade of Mike Bordick to the New York Mets before discrepancies were revealed regarding his age, did not merit a September promotion.

The Orioles acquired catcher Geronimo Gil from the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 31 as an alternative to Fernando Lunar and perhaps Brook Fordyce, both of whom were acquired during Thrift's summer 2000 shopping spree.

Young arms Luis Rivera, Mark Nussbeck and Pat Gorman - obtained from the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and Mets - did not pitch an inning this season. (As Thrift once reminded a group of Rochester reporters, "The only people who can predict injuries are sportswriters in Baltimore.")

Thrift's most astute moves may have been the selection of Jay Gibbons in last December's major-league draft and the signing of minor-league free agent Willis Roberts during the Dominican Winter League. On the disabled list since Aug. 6, Gibbons still leads the team with 15 home runs. Roberts has so far impressed as a potential closer for next season.

"Gibbons being a Rule 5 guy [who must remain on the major-league roster all season or be offered back to his former club for half the $50,000 fee] performed exceptionally well. I'm not prepared to give evaluations player-by-player. I think what you have to do is go beyond what you see this year."

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