O's pass first test, but free agency is final exam

November 05, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The offseason is off to a pretty good start for the Orioles, for what that's worth.

The Boston Red Sox apparently have lost boy wonder general manager Theo Epstein - an unmistakable blow to one of the Orioles' chief rivals.

Former Orioles GM Pat Gillick - the best in the business, in my opinion - was looking for a job but didn't sign with the Red Sox or New York Yankees, instead taking on the task of turning the Philadelphia Phillies into a playoff team. (He will.)

The Los Angeles Dodgers first fired their manager and then fired their general manager in the middle of his search for a new manager, proving that the Orioles, even after eight straight losing seasons, don't own the copyright on organizational dysfunction.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have gone back to one general manager (Mike Flanagan), brought in the game's best pitching coach (Leo Mazzone) and hired a highly regarded young executive (Jim Duquette) to assist Flanagan. They also permitted manager Sam Perlozzo to pick his coaching staff, as Lee Mazzilli wasn't allowed to do.

It seems like they're trying to quash some of the factionalism that had sprouted.

In fairness, those whose departures made headlines - Jim Beattie, Dave Ritterpusch and Elrod Hendricks, to name a few - weren't any more or less responsible for the losing than those who have survived. The clunky two-headed GM arrangement, not just Beattie, made the front office hesitant. Hendricks was just the bullpen coach. And Ritterpusch, a proponent of psychological testing, was one of the more forward-thinking people to work for the club in recent years. He had the Orioles on the cutting edge for once.

But the overall operation was maddeningly vague on such issues as accountability and vision, so it was imperative that one person be put in charge of personnel decisions, and also imperative that the chain of command be clear. The manager picks his coaches. The GM makes the personnel calls.

Those changes have been rendered, although with the free-agent season opening next week, we're about to find out how it all works in reality instead of just theoretically, with owner Peter Angelos hovering, as always. (With all due respect to Duquette, who has already run the Mets' front office and clearly is capable, Flanagan needs to be in charge. The two-headed system didn't work.)

And of course, any judgment of the Orioles' offseason will depend primarily on how they fare in acquiring players either by trade or free agency.

A year ago, they talked a lot about filling their various holes, accomplished little and wound up trading for Sammy Sosa. Then they balked again at the trade deadline last July, making only one minor move, sending outfielder Larry Bigbie to Colorado for Eric Byrnes.

Enough of such paralysis.

After the depressing 2005 season, the Orioles owe their fans some bold personnel strokes. They also might actually be looking at a sliver of an opening in the American League East. The Yankees and Red Sox are always going to spend a lot more, but the Yankees are getting ever older (and thin on pitching), and the Red Sox will miss Epstein's bold, original thinking.

Incredibly, the Boston upheaval traces back to, of all people, Bigbie, a career .268 hitter. The Red Sox wanted him last July and negotiated a multi-player deal with the Rockies, who were set to ship him to Boston after getting him from here, but the deal never came off, and Epstein and Red Sox president Larry Lucchino quarreled so vehemently about how to portray it that Epstein, 31, eventually walked away.

Now New England is in a frenzy trying to interpret Epstein's decision - my opinion is he was weary of a job in which every move was deemed as important as the onset of world peace.

Anyway, for those of you who predicted Bigbie would one day contribute in a big way to the Orioles' fortunes - your day has come. The Red Sox have been staggered.

None of it will matter unless the Orioles can persuade a few quality players to come here; the last GM who was adept at it was Gillick. (Can we go over again how fortunate the Orioles are that he went to Philadelphia and not to New York, Boston or - horrors - Washington?)

The Orioles have lost so many free-agent sweepstakes since then that the routine has become an offseason staple. The Orioles wait for the "market to set itself," narrowly underbid and take the high road in defeat, claiming salaries are out of hand.

The act is old and offputting. This team has money to spend, holes to fill and bad memories to erase.

In other words, although the offseason has started well, it's really just beginning.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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