Bad year would be worse without Hargrove

Inside the Orioles

O's manager persevered despite lack of 4 priorities

ace, closer, No. 1, 4 hitters

Baseball

September 30, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Few things are more dangerously subjective than evaluating the work of a manager and his coaching staff after a rebuilding season. Strapped with between 90 and 100 losses, how can their work be considered successful? Ranked last in their league in batting and in the bottom third in pitching and defense, what measure can prove their worth?

Mike Hargrove and his six-man staff offer an example. With their roster undermanned from Opening Day and debilitated since the All-Star break, the Orioles will finish with their worst record since at least 1991. It could have been far worse.

The Orioles began the weekend having given 45 starts to rookie pitchers compared to 13 last season, yet managed a decline in team ERA from 5.37 to 4.73. A bullpen that ended last season in chaos discovered a semblance of order despite the July 31 trade of Mike Trombley.

Hargrove has dealt with the club's most disastrous stretch since the opening of the 1988 season, the unique circumstances of a legend's farewell tour and a minor-league system representing, at best, a porous safety net.

Similar circumstandes destroyed Jim Leyland's desire to manage in Florida and led to clubhouse upheaval in numerous other places. These Orioles neither griped nor quit on their manager as he maneuvered the dicey transition to an inexperienced, trial-and-error team.

Hargrove holds the common belief that a team's four strongest pillars need to be its No. 1 starter, closer, leadoff and cleanup hitters. Hargrove believes that a rebuilding club is less needful of an ace than the other three priorities. A cleanup hitter, the manager believes, is most important. Whether the Orioles' decision-making apparatus concurs with his order is unclear; however, this season has clearly shown Hargrove possesses none of the four pillars. (An admission he would not make Friday.)

Making the Orioles' predicament even more painful is their recent history.

Armando Benitez ranks among the National League leaders in saves for the New York Mets three seasons after he was traded for catcher Charles Johnson, a player whom the Orioles showed only tepid interest in retaining before finally trading down for a four-player package.

Mike Mussina has outperformed presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens in every statistical category except run support and record.

And somewhere on a Phoenix golf course rides the player who provided the Orioles 60 home runs and 220 RBIs in two seasons marred by petulance, inconsistency and ultimately injury.

The Orioles have given rookie Willis Roberts this month to demonstrate whether he can be a closer. Results have been mixed, partly because it's hard to close games when your offense scores 28 runs in a 17-game span and partly because Roberts bungled consecutive save chances, including last Sunday's collapse against the New York Yankees.

Nothing is rarer in baseball than legitimate No. 1 starters. While Peter Angelos' professionals didn't recognize Mussina as one, the Yankees' willingness to pay him $88.5 million for six seasons suggests they disagree. His 3.41 ERA and 10-4 record since June further support the argument.

Right fielder Albert Belle's case admittedly fell beyond the Orioles' control if one excuses their knee-jerk reaction to the Yankees' interest in the malevolent slugger after the 1998 season.

One wonders how the two franchises' fates would have differed had Brian Jordan signed with the Orioles and Belle been allowed to pollute the Yankees' tranquil clubhouse.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Orioles allowed themselves to enter a season without any of the four pillars. Instead, Hargrove dealt with a shifting foundation, rampant injuries and organizational depth so lacking that the front office frequently preferred its manager work with an abbreviated roster rather than put players on the disabled list.

Hargrove and his coaching staff have done an admirable job given so little to build upon. He has squeezed saves from five relievers, used eight leadoff hitters, eight cleanup hitters and received 200 2/3 combined innings from his first two starting pitchers, Pat Hentgen and Sidney Ponson. Few staffs have taught more. Asked whether the season had forced the staff to adopt a Double-A approach, one observer of the Orioles' condition answered, "Lower."

Middle infielders Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts continue to address fundamental flaws that left the Orioles with only eight more double plays than errors entering the weekend. (The Orioles have committed their most errors since 1965.)

Mike Kinkade, Jay Gibbons and Chris Richard were crude outfielders at the start of the season. Backup catcher Fernando Lunar was considered enough of an offensive project that he rarely traveled during spring training. Gibbons came to camp without a major-league at-bat and went on the disabled list Aug. 6 leading the club in home runs. He still does.

Hargrove has since waited for a winning month. He has endured several games where a different pitching matchup may have affected the outcome. But his ever-fluid lineups notwithstanding, he has provided a sense of stability and consistency the situation demands.

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