Is Thrift O's man for 2003?

Orioles: The vice president has made some good trades in his three years in charge, but his team is 68 games under .500 in that span. Some say new faces are needed for an organization `in disarray.'

September 22, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Other Orioles officials had tears in their eyes. Syd Thrift had his eyes on the future.

It was July 31, 2000, and Thrift had just traded B.J. Surhoff, completing a flurry of deadline deals that revamped the roster, moving six high-priced veterans for a list of minor-league prospects.

"Somebody is going to be able to sit up here three years from now," Thrift said, "and say how smart they are."

The words were meant to be reassuring for a disenchanted fan base and a clubhouse in a state of shock. Thrift put himself on the line that first season as Orioles vice president for baseball operations. By 2003, he promised, the person in his position would be sitting pretty, no matter who it was.

So how attractive does that position look heading toward next season? And who will be the one who fills it? Should Thrift stay, or should he go?

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has already addressed his on-field staff for next season, saying manager Mike Hargrove and his entire coaching staff will be back. In July, Angelos said, "Syd is here to stay," but the owner said he would wait to officially address Thrift's situation until after the season.

Meanwhile, others inside and outside the organization wait in not-so-silent wonder.

"I have a lot of respect for Syd," said Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. "To me it's not a personal issue. I think in this case, you need to be judged and you need to be accountable. And if you look at this organization, it's in disarray.

"So, with that said, I think they need to look at making some changes."

In Thrift's first two seasons as vice president of baseball operations, the Orioles went 74-88 and 63-98. By all accounts, this has been a turnaround season, but after climbing back to .500 on Aug. 23, the club lost 23 of 27 and entered last night's game at 67-86.

Meanwhile, the Orioles' top three minor-league affiliates - Triple-A Rochester, Double-A Bowie, and Single-A Frederick - finished a combined 109 games under .500.

Thrift, 73, whose professional baseball experience stretches more than 50 years, remains committed to turning things around. Without directly answering the question of whether he'd like to be back, he pointed to a multitude of positive developments from this season.

"We've had an exciting year, even though the record is not what we hoped it would be," Thrift said. "If we can be as successful each day as we have for the last 365, then 2003 will be a very pleasant year."

Major-league gains

Any debate about Thrift's future can start with a look at the moves he's made at the major-league level. The team's roster is covered with Thrift's success stories, from six-year minor-league free agent Rodrigo Lopez to Gary Matthews, who was acquired in an April trade with the New York Mets for left-handed reliever John Bale.

Lopez, originally signed to pitch at Rochester, has emerged as an American League Rookie of the Year candidate. Matthews, originally signed to be a reserve outfielder, has blossomed into an everyday player.

In the best trade of Thrift's tenure, the Orioles acquired Jorge Julio from the Montreal Expos for Ryan Minor. Julio has saved 25 games and posted a 2.07 ERA as a rookie, while Minor has toiled with Newark in the independent Atlantic League.

At last year's trade deadline, Thrift sent Mike Trombley to the Los Angeles Dodgers for relief pitcher Kris Foster and Geronimo Gil. Trombley was a bust for the Dodgers, and Gil has held down the Orioles' starting catching job all season.

Thrift continues to turn other team's discards into aces. He signed Willis Roberts (5-3, 3.27 ERA this season) and Travis Driskill (8-7, 4.78) as six-year minor-league free agents. His better acquisitions also include Jay Gibbons, Tony Batista, Melvin Mora and Buddy Groom.

"You're never going to bat 1.000," Thrift said. "The worst thing you can ever do is nothing. I like to keep moving. I like to keep trying this guy, signing this guy because I know the numbers are really what count."

During the purge of 2000, when the Orioles traded Surhoff, Mike Timlin, Charles Johnson, Harold Baines, Will Clark and Mike Bordick (since re-acquired), Thrift saved the franchise several million in salary over the life of their contracts.

But aside from Mora, the players coming back have yet to make much of an impact, with several getting hurt, including Chris Richard and Luis Rivera.

For Johnson, the Orioles acquired Brook Fordyce, who quickly received a three-year, $7.7 million contract and became an expensive backup catcher behind Gil.

Another move being second-guessed is last winter's trade that sent prospect Willie Harris to the Chicago White Sox for Chris Singleton. Neither player tore it up this season, with Harris batting .230 and Singleton batting .267. But Singleton is arbitration eligible, which means he could double his $1.4 million salary for next season.

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