O's to-do list full after empty year

Analysis: A 2001 roster left barren by injuries and inexperience gives the O's many rebuilding options. `Everything,' says manager Mike Hargrove, `is on the table.'

Baseball

October 09, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

If Mike Hargrove ever found himself caught up in the emotional tug of Cal Ripken's farewell tour, the Orioles manager needed only look down his bench to find a cruel measure of this season.

The Orioles were so battered and bruised during the season's final month that Hargrove found himself with only two healthy reserve position players. While other managers enjoyed the flexibility afforded by an expanded roster, Hargrove merely opened a hospital ward.

Ripken's feel-good exit on Saturday elevated the final weekend of a 63-98 season that represented the Orioles' fourth consecutive losing season in fourth place. For only the second time in franchise history, they also suffered a fourth consecutive year with an eroding record, this one the worst since 1988's 107-loss debacle. The Orioles showed themselves to be a light-hitting, defensively suspect bunch made vulnerable by a lack of organizational depth. Their final 140 games were less impressive than the 1988 bunch over the same span.

Significant injuries to Opening Day starter Pat Hentgen, shortstop Mike Bordick, first baseman David Segui and rookie outfielder Jay Gibbons conspired with a collective offensive burnout to make Ripken's final lap the season's high point.

The Orioles were the major leagues' only team unable to sweep a three-game series. Their leading pitcher, Jason Johnson, won only 10 games, and their leading power hitters produced 15 home runs. Hargrove used 140 different lineups and allowed rookie pitchers 49 starts.

His rookie closer was optioned to the minor leagues before June and his saves leader managed just 11. Any good news was mostly confined to a pitching staff that lowered its ERA from 5.37 to 4.67 while receiving promising first impressions by rookies Josh Towers, Jorge Julio, Sean Douglass and Rick Bauer. Next spring's anticipated return of Matt Riley and Luis Rivera from major arm surgery only furthers the club's anticipation.

What the Orioles refuse to admit publicly, they have already addressed privately: the menagerie of position players they obtained in the July 2000 purge does not include an everyday fixture.

"Everything," according to Hargrove, "is on the table."

The Orioles endured one of the worst offensive seasons in club history, ranking last in the American League with a .248 team average and finishing as the only team in baseball not to amass a combined .700 on-base and slugging percentage.

Only two spots within the Orioles' batting order - No. 4 and No. 7 - exceeded the American League average. Hamstrung by Brady Anderson's season-long struggle, leadoff hitters batted an industry-worst .192 compared to the .270 league average.

Players such as outfielder Chris Richard, utility starter Melvin Mora, catcher Brook Fordyce and converted catcher Mike Kinkade left the impression of platoon or reserve players.

Once an organizational beacon, second baseman Jerry Hairston received a team-high 532 at-bats yet finished with the lowest batting average of any AL player to average more than three plate appearances per game.

"We want to dramatically improve," says Hargrove, who endured a 23-51 second half after enjoying an overachieving effort during a 40-47 first half. "I don't know that terming next year as a go-for-it season would be fair. But I think fans should expect to see an improved product."

Few within the industry question whether the Orioles have the means.

Ripken's retirement, pending free agency of pitchers Jose Mercedes and Alan Mills, the release of infielder Delino DeShields and the July 31 trade of middle reliever Mike Trombley leave the club's payroll a decidely mid-market look. While they lament what injuries did to their record, the Orioles benefited on the bottom line. Having insured their recent multi-year contracts, the club is due 70 percent of Albert Belle's $13 million salary and 60 percent of starting pitcher Scott Erickson's $6.4 million.

A more profound question is whether the Orioles possess the method.

Vice president of baseball operations Sid Thrift insists the club "absolutely" plans to be a serious player in this winter's free-agent market. However, the market is rated as shallow, placing even more of a premium on sluggers such as Oakland A's first baseman Jason Giambi, San Francisco Giants left fielder Barry Bonds and Cleveland Indians outfielder Juan Gonzalez.

A second tier features Houston Astros outfielder Moises Alou and New York Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, a player the Yankees were willing to trade to the Orioles in 2000.

Beyond meeting the elite class' extravagant financial demands, the Orioles also must successfully challenge their reputation as a franchise mired in rebuilding.

The danger presented by the second tier is age and health. Alou, who has a complicated medical history, turns 36 just before next season's All-Star break. Martinez, 35 in December, was thought in decline before reviving this season. Even Bonds, 37, poses questions as he is virtually certain to demand a contract carrying him beyond his 40th birthday.

Starved for pitching, the Texas Rangers may attempt to trade catcher Ivan Rodriguez this winter. The Orioles' organizational depth lies in young arms and they are certain to inquire.

Rodriguez, however, is eligible for free agency after next season while possessing sufficient service time to veto any deal beforehand.

Given the circumstances, the Orioles are deserving of a get-well card.

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