It's time to scout out directions while waiting for a turnaround

The Orioles

March 30, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

NO PUDGE, no Griffey, no Godzilla, no Cliff Floyd, no Carlos Beltran. No fun.

The list of players who never made it to the Orioles' roster this past offseason is long, illustrious, alluring. It is also too futile to think about one minute longer. Deep down, we know Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan are right. There are no quick fixes in Birdland.

Opening Day is almost upon us.

What's a good Orioles fan to do?

Start dreaming about next winter, when the free-agent market opens again and the Orioles start talking about the stars who'd fit the bill at Camden Yards?

There will be runs at flashy guys like Miguel Tejada or Vladimir Guerrero. There will be the call for a rock-solid starter like Greg Maddux. And what the heck, what about wooing Ivan Rodriguez again, if Pudge will go ahead and sign for three years?

Instant gratification. Quick fixes. An end to the suffering and box office (and RBI) blahs. Is that too much to ask?

Yes. So here we are. Stuck between the past and the future. Ruminating between what was, what could have been, what will be.

It's a restless place, filled with uncertainty and questions - so many questions, big and small. What are they? Where do we start?

Q. Will the Orioles do better than 67-95?

A. They had better, and they should. They need at least the 75 wins that it would take to earn Mike Hargrove his 1,000th career managerial victory. Otherwise, who's to say how thorough the housecleaning might be next winter. Q. Will the Orioles be over .500 on May 19?

A. They had better be, because it's a steady diet of Tampa Bay, Detroit and Kansas City for the first 44 games before the "real season" commences May 20 at the home of the defending World Series champion Anaheim Angels.

Q. Will David Segui play more than he's injured?

A. Why do we fear the worst about this talented player we've seen too little of his latest stint in Baltimore? We're hoping for 92 games.

Q. Will Rodrigo Lopez remain the stellar starter you only dream about finding in the minor league scrap heap?

A. Lopez looked terrific this spring. May his American League-rookie-best 15 wins last season become 20 this season.

Q. Will Melvin Mora be shipped off to aid a National League contender before the trade deadline?

A. We can part with our beloved Melvin if his departure brings the Orioles at least one standout prospect.

Q. Will the defensive liabilities on the left side of the infield - once a benchmark for Orioles success - create a singles factory for slap hitters around the league?

A. Tony Batista and Deivi Cruz will not be mistaken for Ripken/Bordick anytime soon - and so what if Cruz can hit a little better than Bordick?

Q. Will that so-called deep starting rotation melt faster than a snowball in July?

A. Why do we fear a season of more Sidney Ponson unpredictability, more Jason Johnson losses, more Omar Daal 19-loss seasons, more Pat Hentgen arm woes?

Q. Will Ponson again be the world's youngest grouch?

A. If he really wants to be traded, then Sidney must pitch. The Orioles need good offers to move him. But if he wants to stay - and there's no team like your first team - he and the team need to remove the anxiety and distrust Ponson feels by being the No. 1 shopped item on the roster.

Q. Will players like Jerry Hairston, Gary Matthews and Jay Gibbons make the steady, incremental improvements necessary for Beattie and Flanagan to tab any or all of these guys as mainstays on the big league team for the next five years?

A. Hairston looks comfortable at the plate and smooth at second. Matthews needs to be less streaky at the plate and less shallow in center. Gibbons has power but can't cop to saying things like: "I'm about as good as I'm going to get defensively." There's always room to grow.

Q. Will Hairston and Mora get drunk again on the idea of blasting homers when the offense sputters?

A. They can't, not when the name of the game this season is small ball. On-base percentage, base-stealing, bunts, hit-and-run plays. The Orioles need to squeeze the most out of their limited offensive ability.

Q.Will veterans Jeff Conine and B.J. Surhoff stay healthy enough so a 4-32 slide is a nightmare never to be repeated? A. "Some of us veterans take pride in the way we prepare for the season," Surhoff said this spring. We're glad Surhoff's here, for his production potential and to show the youngsters how it's done.

Q. Will Flanagan and Beattie actually ever pull off a big trade?

A. OK, we admit it. We're still waiting for the ball to start rolling on the remaking of the Orioles, even if it's one minor league prospect at a time.

Q. Will the Expos relocate to Washington?

A. If the Orioles are out of it by the All-Star break, we can find some drama value in Major League Baseball's intention to announce where the Montreal franchise will move. It could be a lively August, with Orioles owner Peter Angelos leading the league in court motions filed. Talk about the Battle of the Beltway!

Look at it this way: It will not be any worse than it has been. The Orioles are finally past rock bottom. That was last September. That was before Flanagan and Beattie were brought in, before they installed Doc Rodgers to run the minor league system.

Rock bottom is over. This is a new beginning. Try to be patient. There's every reason to believe the turnaround is about to begin - even if you need a magnifying glass to witness it.

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