As O's look ahead, hope for winning season left behind

August 10, 2007|By RICK MAESE

You never know just when the realization might hit, so we always have to be prepared. It can strike while you're in traffic, at the ballpark, in your living room. But it will hit. At some point every summer, it pops up with the inevitability of a sunrise: The Orioles will not have a winning record this year.

This year the realization was hardly a bombshell, the boom less than thundering. When you've been on this ride once or twice, it's more like a subtle pffft - and just like that, the only question mark that seemed to matter has been answered.

Yesterday's news that the Orioles parted with Chris Gomez and John Parrish was hardly a death knell. Their combined contributions aren't the difference between a good team and a bad team. But the moves did give plenty of indication as to what the Orioles hope to salvage out of the 2007 season - and just what kind of carnage awaits in the final six weeks.

Let's just deal with the Gomez move for a second. In return for one of the most dependable and affable guys in the clubhouse, the Orioles received $20,000 in cash from the Cleveland Indians, which is the baseball equivalent of leaving the trading post with some magic beans. That's gas money, it's supersizing your meal, it's what you tip the batboy at the end of the season.

Replacing Gomez on the roster is an outfielder from Triple-A Norfolk named Tike Redman, who has got to be thinking he's a buzzing alarm clock away from jolting awake from a dream sequence. Though he does have more than 1,200 major league at-bats, Redman began the year in York, Pa., playing for an independent league team.

"I don't think anyone will ever feel sorry for Chris Gomez," manager Dave Trembley said. "For goodness sake, he's going to a contending team."

Trembley's right - it's not Gomez anyone feels sorry for.

As I said, Parrish and Gomez weren't going to be difference-makers the last couple of months of the season, but their departures come at a time when the team stood at a crossroads: Should it take aim at respectable record this season? Or does it focus on preparing for 2008?

I'll let team president Andy MacPhail answer. In explaining yesterday's moves, he said: "It gives us the opportunity to get younger and puts us in a position to make as many good decisions as we possibly can related to 2008."

To translate, "Goodbye, 2007. We hardly knew ye."

The Orioles have reached the portion of their schedule that's not designed to break in young Orioles with any degree of compassion or patience. In truth, the final six weeks of the season are filled with nothing but potholes for the Trembley bandwagon.

Starting with tonight's game against the Boston Red Sox, 35 of the Orioles' final 49 games come against teams that had a record above .500 entering last night - including 10 against Boston and nine against the New York Yankees. To get an understanding of what that might foretell, consider the Orioles' success thus far against winning teams. Entering last night's game, they were 24-45 against .500-or-better teams, and 28-15 against those with losing records.

The Orioles should wake up every morning and thank the baseball gods that Tampa Bay is peppered all over their schedule. Games against Kansas City, too. Without their 16-2 mark against the Devil Rays and Royals, the Orioles would have been 22 games below .500 entering last night, and we'd have been reading this team its last rites back in May.

Instead, we waited until August, when all of a sudden, you realize there aren't enough bright spots to light up a small linen closet. (Well, OK, there is that leadoff hitter and a pretty exciting staff ace ... )

We've known for weeks that the way the Orioles tackled this tough stretch of schedule would tell us all we needed to know about how the preseason goals are now regarded. Already team officials have been forced to give up on using the standings as any type of gauge to judge success. Reaching .500 is no longer the goal. A third-place finish would be remarkable.

What we learned yesterday - and what's inevitable when you look at the remaining schedule - is that this season already has become about next season; it's about evaluating talent and preparing young players for 2008.

Trembley was asked whether with the roster shuffle he thought his team would be better today than it was yesterday. After an "um," a long pause, and some hemming and hawing, he seemed to realize that he probably shouldn't answer that question honestly. "Whether or not we're a better team immediately, time will tell," he said.

He didn't have to say any more. It's clear now. Yesterday's moves - and any ensuing moves this year - aren't designed for a better today. Everything is geared for tomorrow. It's one of few certainties we can ascribe to the Orioles - the annual shifting of the calendar, where this year's hopes are forwarded to next year's schedule.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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