Man with plan, Thrift not detoured by Thome

Orioles Plus

Intent on rebuilding, VP wary of altering chemistry

July 21, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift was listening to talk radio on a recent drive when a caller said something that almost made Thrift stop the car with sheer delight.

Forget all this talk of trading for Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome, the caller said. What if that meant losing young Orioles slugger Jay Gibbons? What if he's another Thome?

"Great question," Thrift said emphatically last week.

The moment offered a telling glimpse into Thrift's thoughts approaching the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Chances seem strong that this year's deadline will pass quietly for the Orioles, much like last year, when their only move turned into a steal. A year ago, they sent veteran reliever Mike Trombley to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Geronimo Gil, who became their starting catcher, and minor-league reliever Kris Foster.

Over the next 10 days, something could change, but for now, the talk-show callers might want to give it a rest. Industry sources say the Orioles are not even discussing a possible trade for Thome because they realize they stand no chance of getting him until he hits the free-agent market after the season.

Thome has a no-trade clause, and insists he won't waive it. That could change, but sources say Cleveland's trade partner would have to be a legitimate World Series contender.

That doesn't mean the Orioles have abandoned their goal of adding a power hitter to the middle of their lineup. But at this point, they seem committed to the team's rebuilding process.

With the bargain-basement discoveries the Orioles have made under Thrift, they already have made a huge turnaround from their 63-98 performance last season. One could argue that a piece like Thome could help them get over the hump in 2003. But trading for one right now probably would cost them the likes of Gibbons, Sidney Ponson and at least one pitching prospect.

In the first year of the post-Cal Ripken era, the Orioles have thrived under their starless system, and there are no guarantees as to how a new superstar would be received.

Even Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has said it's important to remember this team is not a contender -- yet. Sometimes teams can be deceived into thinking they are closer to the World Series than they actually are.

The Dodgers learned the hard way with the Kevin Brown contract in 1998. The Colorado Rockies tried with Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2000.

It takes nerve to start a rebuilding project, the way the Orioles have under Thrift and Hargrove. And it takes even more nerve to stick with it, when the fan base is starving for the next superstar.

"I'm looking for anything that makes sense for now and for next year," Thrift said. "The future is now. We've got young players, and we just keep adding."

The one area where the Orioles have a surplus of tradable commodities is their starting pitching staff. Ponson and Scott Erickson are eligible for free agency after next season, and Jason Johnson has a reasonable two-year, $4.7 million contract.

The Orioles could trade one of those three and still have Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill on their staff, with Sean Douglass, Rick Bauer, Erik Bedard and John Stephens all waiting in the wings.

Still, Thrift is in no hurry to trade from this surplus.

"You can never have too much [pitching]," Thrift said.

Left-handed reliever Buddy Groom, who has a 1.89 ERA, would have been high on many teams' lists had the Orioles not given him a contract extension that will pay him $3 million in 2004, when Groom turns 39.

"I can't see anybody taking on that kind of coin," said one opposing general manager.

That doesn't matter to Thrift, who says he wouldn't trade Groom anyway.

So even though Thrift spends the majority of his time on the phone with other teams, he has yet to hear an offer he likes. The man who acquired closer Jorge Julio for Ryan Minor -- a recent addition to the independent league Newark Bears -- drives a hard bargain.

Asked if he'd need to be overwhelmed to trade one of his starting pitchers, Thrift smiled and said. "That's a good word."

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