O's want to see youth movement grow up this year

For fans to have faith in long-term plan, team needs to show progress

February 18, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE - If the Orioles are going to make good on the promise of youth that has sprung from a difficult rebuilding process, they need to show significant progress both on the field and in the American League East standings during the 2002 season.

That was the message vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift delivered to his staff during four days of front office meetings last week. It's time to prove to the fans that the club's long-term plan is going to work.

"This is really a test year," Thrift said. "We're going to give them [the Orioles' top prospects] an opportunity to see what they can do."

In other words, it's put-up-or-shut-up time for the Orioles' youth movement.

The front office has come under criticism for an unprecedented string of four losing seasons in Baltimore. The young O's are far from a lock to finish above .500 this year, but club officials know they can't afford to repeat last year's 63-win performance.

Oriole Park attendance declined for the fourth straight year - the final total of 3,094,841 the lowest for a non-strike year since the Orioles moved to Camden Yards in 1992 - which raises an obvious question.

How long is highly competitive owner Peter Angelos willing to wait for the team to turn around?

"I haven't issued any ultimatums," Angelos said yesterday. "I certainly expect that there will be substantial improvement among our young players this season. I'm looking forward to it."

It might have been tempting to sink big bucks into the free-agent market this past off-season and try to accelerate the rebuilding process, but Angelos and the front office staff decided that it would make more sense to make only modest free-agent improvements and keep the focus on building from within the organization.

If some of the young players improve, then the money still will be there to put the Orioles in position for a postseason run in 2003. If not, all bets may be off.

"The most difficult thing in the world is to stay the course, because of the competitive nature of this game," Thrift said. "I want to win. Mr. Angelos wants to win. We all want to win. Our goal is to show how well we can develop a team."

Of course, it's too early to tell whether the club's stable of young pitchers will provide enough depth to flesh out a competent staff, or how young hitters like Jerry Hairston and Jay Gibbons will impact the Orioles' offensive attack. That will take months to play out.

Then there is the challenge of trying to quantify whatever progress the organization makes this year. Short of a late-season run that would rival the 1989 "Why Not?" Orioles for improbability, just what would constitute a successful season?

"I learned long ago that what goals you have, if you make them public, all you end up doing is putting more pressure on your team in the process," said manager Mike Hargrove, "and there's enough pressure in this game.

"I'm not saying that to hide the fact that we don't have goals. Obviously, we lost 98 games last year, and we don't want to lose 98 games again. We do have goals that have been established internally, and they'll stay that way."

Thrift isn't throwing any numbers around either, but he said that the front office already has achieved one of its goals - to protect the organization from the kind of instability that resulted from the string of key injuries that decimated the roster last summer.

"You try not to make the same mistakes we made before," he said. "We did not sign enough veteran six-year [minor-league] free agents last year and got caught in September without enough players. Then you have to bring up kids who you know are in way over their heads.

"That forced guys up to Double-A and Triple-A who shouldn't have been there. It was a chain reaction, and it was wrong."

The Orioles succeeded in adding some organizational depth over the winter - and beefed up the major-league lineup with the arrival of veteran outfielders Marty Cordova and Chris Singleton - but the true potential of the 2002 team is very much an open question six weeks before the defending AL champion New York Yankees arrive at Camden Yards for the opening series of the new season.

"Who knows what will happen during the year?" Thrift said. "One thing we do know ... we're going to be tested right out of the gate."

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