Orioles choose money over merit by sticking with Kline and Ponson

July 20, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

LET'S SEE. You've got a starting pitcher who is defiantly out of shape and owns the highest ERA of any regular starter in the major leagues. You've got a veteran left-handed reliever who has been a major late-inning liability and a growing problem in the clubhouse.

And you've got an inspiring comeback story - a former All-Star who quietly picked himself off the scrap heap to win a place in your bullpen and pitch effectively in long relief.

So, what do you do when you need space on the roster? That's a no-brainer. You cut the guy with the 1.61 ERA.

The Orioles did just that Monday in Minnesota, designating James Baldwin for assignment on a day when a lot of people were wondering if he had earned the right to replace Sidney Ponson (Struggling Pitcher No. 1 in the aforementioned scenario) in the starting rotation.

Baldwin had performed admirably in the 12 games he pitched after climbing back out of the minor leagues. The Orioles would like to have kept him by parking Steve Kline (Struggling Pitcher No. 2) at Double-A Bowie while they sort out their roster and try to make a midseason deal, but that would have required Kline to make the sacrifice of earning his guaranteed $2.5 million salary for a few weeks in the minors.

Kline, who has been one of the major critics of Lee Mazzilli at the same time he has been making the manager's job much harder than it should be, reportedly declined the option - which is his contractual right - and the club was left with a painful and unpopular decision.

It's not my money, but I wish the Orioles had cut Kline loose and sent a message to the team and the fans that the $4 million or so remaining on his contract is a small price to pay to improve the chemistry of the clubhouse. I'd like to see them make a hard decision on Sidney, too, but it's a little easier to understand why club officials hold out hope that he still might earn some of the $13 million in salary and deferrals that remain on his ill-advised three-year deal.

Put yourself in the shoes of Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, who - unlike Ponson and Kline - are in the last year of their contracts. Now, walk in those shoes to the Law Offices of Peter Angelos and tell the owner that the pitcher you signed for $22.5 million two winters ago is a total stiff and you want to flush the rest of the contract - or, at the very least, turn him into the game's richest middle reliever. This, after you've designated one of your offseason pitching acquisitions (Steve Reed) for assignment and the other one has become a major pain in the, well, bullpen and clubhouse.

The co-GMs and the manager apparently aren't convinced Ponson is a lost cause, but we'll just have to agree to disagree. They think he's a guy whose head isn't in the right place right now (well, we do agree on that, though I think the actual location is a little farther south than they do), and are hoping he can turn things around and do what he did in the second half last year.

Let's review. Sidney went 8-3 down the stretch in 2004, but that was after he arrived at spring training out of shape and his horrible start helped remove all hope of the Orioles being competitive. He was so chastened after the season that he got jailed on an assault charge in Aruba and put his work visa in danger with a driving-under-the-influence charge in Florida in January.

It's hard not to be a little cynical when the economics of the game trump the best interests of the team, but that's the baseball world we live in. The Orioles might be better served with Baldwin in the starting rotation, but the front office is cast in the unenviable position of needing Ponson to write the co-GMs (and maybe Mazzilli, too) a letter of recommendation in the second half.

I hope Sir Sidney steps up, because he owes those guys a knight's ransom for their misplaced confidence.

I hope the front office steps up, too, because it might be easy to look at Erik Bedard's terrific comeback performance Monday night and the club's recent resurgence and allow some of the urgency to leak out of the midseason star search.

That would be regrettable, because the Orioles are not quite ready for prime time.

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