Five weeks with no answers leave O's plenty of questions

Worst 36-game stretch ignites fiery offseason

Analysis

September 30, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

A season of hope has given way to new levels of despair.

The Orioles exceeded their loftiest expectations for nearly five months and then had five of the worst weeks they could ever imagine.

It turns out the Orioles' 4-32 record to close the season represents their worst 36-game stretch in franchise history. They started the 1988 season with 21 consecutive losses, and after 36 games, that team was 5-31.

When it comes to late-season collapses, this one rates with 1986. That year, the Orioles were sitting in second place on Aug. 5, two games behind the Boston Red Sox with a 59-57 record. From there, they went 14-32 and finished the season in seventh.

"I think this has been a little more stressful because of the way it's happened," said Orioles first base coach Rick Dempsey, a catcher on the 1986 team. "We played so well most of the season, and then things just kind of snowballed."

The Orioles climbed their way to the .500 mark on Aug. 23 and fell straight down the mountain. At 63-63, they had as many wins as they had all of last season, and they wound up finishing 67-95.

It was their fifth straight losing season and fifth straight year sitting in fourth place in the American League East.

"It was easier [in 1986] because the people there had experienced a lot of success," said Orioles broadcaster Mike Flanagan, a pitcher on the 1986 team. "That had been a team that had grown up together, had success in the middle, and now age and time was creeping up on a number of us at the same time, which is the normal transition of the game.

"I remember feeling that changes were coming."

The feeling is similar today, and as the Orioles head into what figures to be another busy offseason, here are the five biggest questions:

1. Is Syd Thrift coming back?

Of all the decisions this franchise must make, this is the biggest, because it will determine who steers the ship through the offseason and beyond.

At midseason, Peter Angelos said: "Syd is here to stay," but the owner has been quiet on the subject of his vice president for baseball operations ever since, leading several people inside the organization to speculate that a change could be coming. Yesterday, Thrift hinted he might be ready to step aside, saying his one regret is he hasn't had more time to spend with his family.

If the position opens, Angelos has some potential candidates in his midst, including Flanagan, who remains a respected figure in the warehouse and in the clubhouse.

Such a move would allow for some continuity, because Angelos has already invited manager Mike Hargrove and the entire coaching staff to return next season. Thrift has made several solid acquisitions -- Jorge Julio, Gary Matthews, Rodrigo Lopez -- but many inside the organization feel Thrift's removal would provide addition by subtraction.

2. Will they spend for a big free agent?

Five weeks ago, when the Orioles were at .500, everything seemed to be going according to plan. That was the goal Angelos set for the team during spring training, with the implication that if they made that step, he'd be ready to spend more money on the free-agent market to put the team over the hump in 2003.

Now, none of that is certain.

The Orioles already have $46.6 million committed to nine players for next season, including $13 million for the final year of Albert Belle's contract. About 70 percent of Belle's salary is covered through insurance, but it serves as a painful reminder of the dangers of signing high-profile free agents.

Angelos also cites serious financial concerns with the threat of a team moving to Washington, something that will surely affect his desire to sign anyone to a big, long-term contract.

But in the first year after Cal Ripken's retirement, the Orioles drew fewer than 3 million fans for the first time at Camden Yards, not counting the strike-shortened 1994 season. This underscored the importance of having a marquee player who can put fans in the seats.

"I think it's real important to have a big bat in the middle of the order," Hargrove said.

Some potential free agents who might be a fit include Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome, Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent and Boston Red Sox outfielder Cliff Floyd.

If the Orioles decide they also need pitching, they could sign one of three left-handers expected to be on the market: Chuck Finley (St. Louis Cardinals), Jamie Moyer (Seattle Mariners) or Shawn Estes (Cincinnati Reds).

Angelos will set his budget, and the Orioles will go from there.

3. Will they trade Sidney Ponson?

Thrift hasn't made a trade since he acquired outfielder Matthews from the New York Mets for left-handed reliever John Bale. After standing pat at this year's trade deadline, the Orioles must again decide whether to keep starting pitcher Ponson.

Some of their trade options became more limited this season, as Scott Erickson and Jason Johnson combined to win just 10 games.

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