Angelos needs to reorganize O's front office

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

October 06, 2002|By PETER SCHMUCK

There is no more time to lose. The long-term health and welfare of the Orioles' organization is at stake, and the only way to assure it is with a bold front office reorganization that will restore fan confidence and set the flagging franchise on the right course.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos knows this. He wants to do the right thing and get the right results, but he doesn't want to be viewed as a knee-jerk reactionary in the wake of the club's horrible 4-32 finish. He isn't talking about it publicly yet, because he wants to make sure that whatever he decides to do during the next few weeks is about making sense and not just making headlines.

The team needs decisive new leadership, which means that Angelos will soon have to make the difficult decision to jettison vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. Everybody knows that.

Thrift had ample time to streamline the minor-league system and create a front-office environment conducive to the kind of imaginative, progressive management necessary to compete with the well-heeled New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Instead, the minor-league system is a mess and the only hope for near-term success is another huge investment in the free-agent market.

Five years ago, the Orioles could afford to embark on a five-year plan. They were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and the fans were hungry enough for a fresh new team that they were willing to wait for some of the club's top minor-league prospects to develop. That patience has not been rewarded and should not be expected to survive a sixth consecutive losing season.

It wouldn't be realistic to suggest that the Orioles should be on a par with the Yankees already, but Angelos had a right to expect that they would be much further along than they are today.

The team's surprising .500 record on Aug. 23 created the delusion that the Orioles were just a player or two away from wild-card contention, but it was all false promise. The players and the coaching staff should be applauded for hanging tough that long, but the late-season collapse may have been for the best.

Now, there are no illusions.

Angelos needs to cut to the chase. He needs to hire a new general manager, give him some money to improve the big-league club, charge him with repairing the minor-league system and tell the fans that it's now safe to come back to the ballpark because something good is going to happen relatively soon.

The only question is who? The popular choice in Baltimore would be former pitcher and coach Mike Flanagan, whose links to the club's golden past and good relationship with the owner could create the formula for a front-office renaissance. Angelos might be understandably hesitant to turn the team over to a rookie general manager at such a critical time, but there are enough capable people in the baseball operations department to help Flanagan make it work.

If GM experience is going to be a prerequisite, there are a handful of candidates outside the organization that would represent the kind of dynamic change necessary to turn the franchise around - most notably San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean.

Sabean's contract expires at the end of the postseason, and he is believed to be interested in returning to the East Coast. He would arrive with instant credibility after building an exciting team that has enjoyed sustained success under his watch.

Angelos also would be smart to consider Boston Red Sox GM Mike Port if there is any truth to speculation that he will soon be replaced by that club's new ownership. Port, who interviewed for the Orioles' GM position before Frank Wren got the job, is a longtime executive with vast experience - and some notable successes - in player development.

Should the Red Sox push him aside, Port also might be the perfect mentor to pair with Flanagan to create a new front office brain trust.

The only problem with waiting on Sabean or another name GM is that the clock already is running on an offseason that could determine whether Baltimore baseball fans continue to find other things to do with their summer nights or reconnect with a rejuvenated Orioles franchise.

This is no time to be deliberate, though baseball commissioner Bud Selig created an excuse for delay by asking clubs to refrain from announcing personnel moves during the playoffs and World Series.

That directive shouldn't stop Angelos from pressing ahead, since it apparently has not stopped anyone else. Even the Milwaukee Brewers, the club operated by Selig's daughter Wendy, announced the firing of manager Jerry Royster after the playoffs had begun.

Angelos can be forgiven for waiting to commit to a big expenditure in the free-agent market because of uncertainty about the possible relocation of the Montreal Expos to the Washington area.

The arrival of a second team in the region would dilute both attendance and broadcast revenues, making it tougher for Angelos to justify the $100 million or more he would have to commit to sign the kind of free agents necessary to recharge the Orioles' lineup.

Look for the Orioles to move aggressively to sign free-agent slugger Jim Thome and catcher Ivan Rodriguez if Angelos gets an assurance from his fellow owners that the Expos will be going somewhere else.

Either way, the Orioles will have to do some spending to create fan excitement after five consecutive years of attendance decline. They also need to make some deals to rebalance the roster, which is tilted too heavily toward first base and the corner outfield positions.

It's not going to be an easy fix, which is why a quick change at the top is so crucial.

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