When dugout spot opens, hot seat moves upstairs

May 27, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Even though the losses pile up like raindrops in a bucket, the gray skies hovering above the Orioles only hint at the real storm.

The front office has stopped talking about manager Sam Perlozzo's job status and did so without giving him a vote of confidence. You don't need a psychic hotline on speed-dial to see where he fits in the team's long-term plans. In fact, just two months into the season and right now his main function is no longer that of a manager; he's more like a shield.

When Perlozzo goes - whether it's next week, next month or at season's end - and the shield is gone, the front office will be left without any protection. Somehow, with Perlozzo in place, the brain trust of Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette has escaped criticism, even though it built this team and pushed a second-year manager onto a lonely stage to dodge the tomatoes.

No doubt, when a team plays more than two dozen games decided by two or fewer runs, some wins and losses will hang on a few managerial decisions.

And because this is baseball, you only really make note of the calls that resulted in failure.

It's only fair to apply this same 20-20 hindsight to the decisions that preceded the season and, when you do, you might acknowledge that Perlozzo lost a few games, but you also realize the front office - with Angelos & Son at the controls - has cost this team much more.

The missteps read like a grocery list of perishable items - which have all perished:

The Orioles opted not to commit to a rebuilding plan and aggressively shop their biggest piece of trade bait. Now, most of the sharp eyes in baseball have noticed that Miguel Tejada isn't the player he used to be. (He hasn't hit more than three homers in a month since last May.) Even if a team is willing to gamble on Tejada in late July, his trade value has dropped so much, who knows what you'd get in return - a middle reliever and a piece of equipment to be named?

It's Perlozzo's job to manage the bullpen, but how can you criticize him for using Danys Baez and not knock the front office for signing him? Eyebrows were raised throughout baseball when the Orioles gave Baez a three-year, $19 million contract. The doubts expressed before the season seem to have been validated.

The front office stacked the deck against Perlozzo. He might have lost his clubhouse, but it wasn't solely his doing. With a handful of veterans who all feel entitled to a spot in the lineup every day, someone was bound to be left out, and it was just a matter of time before the discontentment turned noxious. Now, Perlozzo has no choice but to play nice and coddle players who are not performing up to standards.

Two of the biggest contract extensions this front office has offered went to Melvin Mora and Jay Gibbons. Gibbons is set to make nearly $12 million over the final two years of his contract, and Mora's deal has a no-trade clause. We're talking about two players whose numbers have plummeted and yet each still goes out of his way to make his unhappiness known to all.

In addition to the bullpen overhaul, two of the biggest offseason moves were the additions of Jaret Wright and Aubrey Huff. Did no one in the warehouse ask why the pitching-starved New York Yankees would pay $4 million to get rid of Wright? And every other team in baseball passed on Huff (reminder: his best season was four years ago), yet the Orioles thought he was the solution for the middle of the lineup?

You could make the list longer, but the point doesn't change: The front office deserves as much blame as anyone for a listless team that managed to lose sight of the division front-runner before Memorial Day.

To their credit, Flanagan and Duquette have been active despite a couple of inherent obstacles (cough, cough ... an owner who nixes trades ... cough ... trying to convince free agents to join a losing franchise ... cough). It's not an enviable job.

The front office has allowed the seat beneath Perlozzo to grow hot, which makes you think it realizes now that he's not the solution. But do you wonder if anyone in the warehouse will ever acknowledge that the manager is not really the problem, either?

It was somewhat refreshing to hear Yankees owner George Steinbrenner issue an early salvo last week, saying it was general manager Brian Cashman - not manager Joe Torre - who was on the hook for the 2007 season.

Here in Baltimore, once the shield in front of the Orioles' front office is gone, there will be nothing separating the team's architects from overdue criticism and accountability. That's when the clouds really grow dark, and you realize that a decade-long storm - and even another managerial change - has done little to wash away this team's problems.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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