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  Justice: Orioles Need a New Game Plan

Orioles Logo The Post's national baseball writer Richard Justice was on Sports Online to talk about the underachieving Baltimore Orioles and the state of baseball. A scheduling conflict kept Justice from being with us at the start of the discussion. Sports writer C. Jemal Horton filled in for the first portion of the discussion. The transcript of the discussion follows.

Keller, TX: With the way the O's are playing, do you foresee wholesale changes -i.e. a firesale- anytime soon? Just two years ago, the O's were battling for the AL crown? What happened? Is Angelos -and his deep pockets- a curse?

C. Jemal Horton: Yes, wholesale changes are pretty necessary. The way things are going for the Orioles, it can't hurt. Plus, there aren't really "untouchables'' on this team. Ripken is at the end of his career, so losing him wouldn't be all that bad for this club.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Orioles should have kept Raphael Palmeiro and just went after quality starting pitchers instead of signing Albert Belle, and the cast of bums known as the "bullpen"?

C. Jemal Horton: Losing Raffy definitely hurt. It probably would have been a good idea to keep him around, especially since Will Clark has been injured and has failed to give the Orioles the strong bat they need in the lineup. Bringing in Belle has been a pretty good acquisition, but the pitching, as you know, is woeful. But right now, they don't need to worry about starters; they need anybody but Mike Timlin in the bullpen, plus Jesse Orosco is getting up in age.

Falls Church, VA: Will this be the last year the Expos play in Montreal? If so, will they be relocated to D.C., Charlotte, or Portland? How realistic are the chances for D.C. to get the team?

C. Jemal Horton: I'm fairly certain this is Montreal's last season with the Expos. However, it is unlikely they will move to Washington. The Major League Baseball office is concerned about the possible negative impact of having teams in Washington and Baltimore. That would most likely cut into the Orioles' fan base. The Orioles say that 30-40 percent of their fan base comes from Washington and Northern Virginia.

Silver Spring, MD: With all three starting outfielders locked into long-term contracts, what are the chances of seeing either Darnell McDonald or one of the 2 recently drafted outfielders playing on a regular basis within the next two or three years?

C. Jemal Horton: The chances of that occurring are very good.

Springfield, VA: Is there any way the O's can trade Albert Belle. A 250 batting average with 10 homers and less than 40 RBI's doesn't come close to earning his 13 million dollar salary. Also, why not bring in Don Baylor as manager - at least the players might respect Baylor -they obviously don't like Ray Miller-.

C. Jemal Horton: As far as Belle is concerned, trading him, especially at this point of the season, would not be such a smart idea. We all know how dangerous he can be. Things will get better. You watch.

Don Baylor would be an excellent choice to replace Miller. Something has to be done, but making a change at midseason isn't going to help things, especially with the pitching the Orioles have.

Baltimore, Maryland: I have been hearing for the past few weeks about how good the farm system is with Riley, Minor & Co., along with the recent draft picks which our GM designated Stars of the Future. Honestly, are they really that good, or is this just another one of those lets-get-the-fans-all-hyped-up-again type of deals?

C. Jemal Horton: There is reason for optimism because of their immense potential. People shouldn't give up on Minor. Yes, he's 6-foot-5, but he has the abilities to fill in for the spot that Cal vacated a little while ago. Plus, Calvin Pickering will be hitting 40-50 home runs per season in a few years.

Rockville, MD: What's going on with Albert Belle and Scott Erickson and their subpar seasons?

C. Jemal Horton: Honestly, this is a down year for everyone, but their seasons are being highlighted because of the money they are making. Erickson just hasn't been able to keep the ball down, and that's why it's good that Miller is going to start fining these guys. As for Belle, he does need to pick it up, mainly in the area of intensity. But losing brings down everyone, and we all down how bad the Orioles have been over the past two seasons.

Washington DC: What's wrong with Scott Erickson, Juan Guzman and Rocky Coppinger?

C. Jemal Horton: Nobody can keep the ball down. Erickson, from what I understand, isn't 100 percent, but you still must throw strikes. Miller's fines should change that, hopefully.

Lothian, MD: How many years, and how many loses must the Orioles face before Miller is released? This is getting ridiculous!

C. Jemal Horton: Regardless, this is Miller's last season as skipper. But firing him at midseason wouldn't be such a good idea, especially since they'd still have to pay him. Bringing in Don Baylor would be a great idea, but he probably isn't that excited about leaving Atlanta at midseason, and risking the chance to get a ring. Cal, I think, would not make a great manager/player. He's too close to the players on the team. So the big question is: With whom do you replace Miller?

Bethesda, MD: Ray Miller isn't solely to blame for the Orioles problems, but his lack of leadership, poor strategical decisions and refusal to take any blame certainly are not helping the Orioles. What is it going to take for Peter Angelos to replace him?

C. Jemal Horton: See above response, please.

Philadelphia, PA: How can the Orioles salvage this season? Pitching is the major problem, so how can the Orioles acquire a Kevin Appier, Curt Schilling, or a solid reliever and closer?

C. Jemal Horton: You are correct -- pitching is what's killing the Orioles. But acquiring guys such as Appier or Schilling would take nearly a miracle. You see, in order to trade for something great, you must have something valuable or be willing to give up your prospects. The Orioles, who instead must build for the future, cannot do that. The only people of value on the roster are Mike Mussina and Belle. There's no way you want to give that up. So for now, the Orioles must deal with this horrific season, then have that fire sale. Richard Justice is able to join us now to talk about the Orioles and baseball in general.

Pasadena, MD: Given the problems thus far with Belle and DeShields and the fantastic starts for Palmeiro and Alomar, what W-L record do you believe the O's would now have had they kept the latter? So far, Belle brings back memories of the disastrous Glenn Davis!

Richard Justice: The Orioles didn't handle the Palmeiro discussions very well. He wanted to stay, but they stuck to a pay scale until it appeared he might leave. As it turned out, he did leave. He and Belle in the middle of the lineup would be a devastating 3-4 punch--if Belle ever starts to hit as he has in the past. As for DeShields, maybe the job should have gone to one of the kids--Hairston or Garcia. Alomar could not come back to Baltimore because he didn't play hard last season. He's playing great now, and can be great, but scouts have told me: ``His approach last year was an embarrassment.''

Philadelphia, Pa.: Hey Richard,
Are there any good Triple A pitchers out there, not just in the Orioles organization, that could be called up any time soon and could make an impact on the Major League level?

Richard Justice: If those AAA pitchers make a couple of good starts, they go straight to the big leagues. About a dozen have already come up this season and the Reds, Giants, Red Sox and others have gotten big contributions. The guy everyone is watching is the Cardinals' top guy -- Rick Ankiel, who is at Little Rock. Bottom line: there's just not much pitching out there. Most teams are using AAA to sign veteran guys. If you a youngster is going good, he only pit stops in AAA.

Frederick, MD: Do you believe that the Orioles have a coherent rebuilding plan for the future?

Richard Justice: I think the Orioles are torn about the future. Peter Angelos has what I called the San Francisco 49er philosophy, which is: Win today and worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. His previous baseball guys, Pat Gillick and Kevin Malone, were constantly pushing him to make deals for younger players, but Peter resisted because he was unwilling to take a step back for even a day. As a baseball fan, I love a team with more young guys. I don't see how fans have much of an emotional investment in Will Clark or Albert Belle the way you do a Mussina or a Ripken, who've come up through the system. Peter Angelos promises that once there are kids ready to go, he'll back off signing free agents and play the kids from the system. But as for a coherent plan, no, there's conflicting philosophies by ownership and the baseball folks.

Fairfax, Virginia: Are the Cleveland Indians for real? It seems that their torrid hitting has overshadowed some spotty starting pitching. Is this lineup enough to overcome the "good pitching overcomes good hitting" axiom?

Richard Justice: The only knock on the Indians is they don't have a dominant No. 1 starter. And that's the only knock. Their offense and their bullpen are the best in the game. Still, when they look ahead to October, they're going to see Roger Clemens and David Cone in Games 1 and 2 if they play the Yankees. So perhaps until they land a Curt Schilling or a Mike Mussina, they have a tough time. But given their offense, Cone and Clemens had better bring their ``A'' game to the table. Normally, good pitching shuts down good hitting, but the Indians could be the exception because their hitting is so good.

Pittsburgh, PA: When, if at all, do you think baseball will deal with the "small market" issue? Will a city -Pittsburgh, KC, Montreal- have to lose a team before this will happen?

Richard Justice: It's the toughest issue facing baseball, and it's really simple. Either the players must accept a salary cap or the owners must share their revenues the way football owners do. It's that simple. Problem is, the players say they'll never accept a cap, and George Steinbrenner said he's not about to send his profits to the Kansas City Royals. I have no idea how it'll get worked out. Some owners have even suggested down-sizing. It'll be interesting to see how much money the Pirates have after their new stadium opens. Maybe a new stadium is the solution for everyone. But I think everyone agrees it can't continue as it is with about 10 teams beginning each spring knowing they have no chance of competing or holding onto their best players.

Falls Church, VA: Saw the Sunday piece Sunday on the Expos. Are their problems a forecast of thing to come for other teams like Kansas City, Seattle, and Oakland or is it simply a case of Canadian economics?

Richard Justice: No, it's just not Canada. Well, it could be that Montreal won't support big league baseball. Who knows? It's hard to judge because they've let their good players go because of economics and they play in a terrible stadium. The real issue probably is economics. Unless something changes, the Twins, Royals, A's and Expos--that's naming four off the top of my head--can't compete. You can probably throw the Marlins and Devil Rays into that. Their only chance is to have great player development systems and try to produce enough revenues to lock up their core players. Maybe that's possible. Remember how low the Cleveland Indians were a few years ago? Now, they're doing fine.

Vienna, VA: Do have any opinion that differs from Peter Angelos regarding this area deserving a team?

Richard Justice: I think both areas can support a team. Would the Orioles be hurt? Yes. But Northern Virginia is really a separate area, and since you live in Vienna, you know how hard it is to get to Camden Yards, especially on a weekday. The problem is, where would the two markets meet. Northern Virginia's team definitely would draw fans from DC and Montgomery County, and those are two areas the Orioles draw lots of fans. But the bottom line is Northern Virginia/DC deserves a team, is large enough to support a team. There's no better market. It would be good for baseball. The other markets being considered--Charlotte, Las Vegas and Portland--aren't even close.

Norfolk, Va: What's the mood of the Orioles clubhouse when the manager never blames anything on himself?

Richard Justice: Well, obviously, the mood isn't real good. Players notice that the manager never accepts any of the blame, and coupled with some of the strategical moves that have blown up, there aren't warm and fuzzy feelings on either side. However, winning would cure everything.

Chalfont, PA: I currently live in Philadelphia Phillies territory, hence am not as versed in the 1999 Orioles. My question is - given Angelos's money, did he put together a team only money could buy and is it consequently being mismanaged by Ray Miller or do they not have a contending team -Ray Miller notwithstanding-? They seem to have good baseball minds in the front office, or do they?

Richard Justice: They have good baseball minds, but they've lost a lot of good minds--Doug Melvin, Pat Gillick, Davey Johnson, etc. Peter Angelos makes a lot of the decisions himself without regard to what his baseball people think. They put together an old team full of free agents from other places, and it has blown up in their faces. A lot of their problems would be fixed if the starting pitching had been what they expected to be, but the design is unquestionably poor.

Bethesda, MD: Hi Richard,
I'm wondering if you saw the Sporting News' list of the top 100 players of all time and if you share Tom Boswell's opinion that baseball is unique in attaching an inordinate amount of value to old time players.

Richard Justice: Yes, I agree with that. I also think it's impossible to compare players of different eras. I mean, if you stood Mark McGwire beside Mickey Mantle you'd laugh. Was Mickey Mantle a great player? Absolutely. But he didn't train like Mark McGwire, he didn't dedicate himself to the game like Mark McGwire. People would laugh at Babe Ruth now if he had to play in those double-knit uniforms. He'd be a fat, odd-looking guy. Could he hit today? Yes. Is he better than Mark McGwire? That's just impossible to answer because the circumstances of their careers was so different.

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Fans like to villify Peter Angelos but what is he really like and what does he have to say about the current losing situation?

Richard Justice: Peter Angels is extremely competitive and this losing is eating him up. He believes he knows more than his baseball people, whom he considers arrogant. Angelos is arrogant himself. None of these things seemed to be a problem when the Orioles went to the playoffs in 96 and 97. Obviously, what was working then as far as the front office team designing a roster isn't working now. It'll be interesting to see how Angelos reacts if this team finishes far out of the money a second straight year.

Honolulu, Hawaii: Why can't the owner of the Orioles realize that his players don't like playing for Ray Miller?

Richard Justice: I think he feels it's not important that the players like Ray. It is important that they respect him, and given two years of losing, that respect has slid badly. If Angelos had someone in mind he knew would be better--say Felipe Alou, Jim Leyland or Tony La Russa--I'm sure he'd make a change. I'd be shocked if he hadn't considered dozens of alternatives already even though he hasn't spoken about them. At the same time, it's the player's job to play. Belle has to start hitting, Erickson has to start winning and Timlin has to start closing games. That they haven't done their jobs has nothing to do with Ray Miller.

Gaithersburg, MD: How humiliating was the loss of the Orioles to the Cuban all-star team?

Richard Justice: That was about as humiliating as any defeat I've been around. And it wasn't just a loss. It was a blowout. What struck me was how much fun and youth and enthusiasm the Cubans had. They made the Orioles look old, over-the-hill and grouchy. The Cubans were having fun, which is what the Orioles should be doing.

Evanston, IL: Do you think Pedro Martinez has the superhuman stamina to reach the 30 game win mark this year?

Richard Justice: I can't imagine anyone reaching 30 victories again, but if anyone can do it, it's Pedro. He's the best there is right now. There's no one even close.

Fairfax, VA: Given the Orioles record would it be wise to completely unload the old players they have NOW to contending teams who might want them in exchange for lots of young players? For example Baines, BJ Surhoff, Will Clark. Combined with the draft picks they have would this not make a good foundation for the future even if they lose a lot of games in the next few years?

Richard Justice: It's very hard to unload players when so many of the older guys have longterm deals or no-trade clauses. What you want to do is look at the roster and ask: Who do we want to keep? You'd want Mike Bordick, B.J. Surhoff, Charles Johnson, Cal Ripken, Harold Baines, Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson. That's the core of the team. Belle, Anderson and Erickson have no-trade clauses. Erickson, DeShields and Clark have longterm deals that limit their attractiveness on the market. Rhodes and Guzman, who are both unsigned after this season, probably are the most marketable players. Erickson could be, too, if he agreed to accept a trade. That's where you begin to change the roster. It's not much, but given the longterm financial committment, it's a start. Their hope for the future lies in those draft picks and youngsters like Jerry Hairston, Calvin Pickering, Jay son Werth and Matt Riley. If all four of those guys make the big leagues within two years, the entire franchise will have a radically different feel.

Newport News, VA: Richard, how soon do you see guys like Minor, Pickering, McDonald, Riley, and the recent draft picks playing for the O's? I agree with you, I would love to see young homegrown talent out there.

Richard Justice: Judging young baseball talent is the hardest thing there is in sports. I remember talking to the guy who signed Sammy Sosa when he was a 135-pound teenager. I asked: Did you have a feel. He said: Yeah, I had a feel he would be good, but I have that same feel about dozens of guys every year. Minor and McDonald are really struggling with their offense in the minors, and since Minor is 25 years old, that's a serious concern. Pickering looks like he's going to be a terrific hitter, but I'm not sure about his glove. Riley is as close to a can't-miss as the organization has.

Rochester, New York: Albert Belle's numbers are down -- is it because he's got no protection behind him in the lineup or he's been slow to adjust to the change of scenery or what? He's always posted huge numbers at Camden in the past. What gives?

Richard Justice: I think it's all of those things. He hasn't had much protection behind him, and teams enter series deciding they're not going to throw him a strike when it matters. He typically does his best hitting in the second half. The real concern is his lackadasical approach to defense and being part of the team. I guess they didn't get him for his leadership skills, and he certainly hasn't shown any.

Mesquite, Texas: Your opinion, please, of the O's recent draft picks. Any weaknesses in our choices?

Richard Justice: I know people like the kid from Clemson. It would be a crapshoot to comment on the others. Watching those kids come through the system is the most part of following a team for me, but it's so hard to predict.

Rockville, MD: Do you think Ripken will retire after this terrible season and with the coming inevitable rebuilding phase for the Orioles?

Richard Justice: Peter Angelos may have other ideas about rebuilding even though you and I might see it as inevitable. I think Cal will play next season if he has a good year. I think it's that simple. If his number are down, he won't stay around and embarrass himself.

Alexandria: What would you say the chances are for a VA or DC team?

Richard Justice: I'd say 50-50. It seems the Expos are likely to move, and William Collins says he'll bid. Can Peter Angelos stop the move to Northern Virginia? Baseball executives would prefer to have the team move somewhere else, but there's no questioning Collins or the quality of the market. That gives us a chance.

Silver Spring, MD: How long does Ray Miller still have as manager?

Richard Justice: I thought there were about three or four times earlier this season when he would be fired. Most managers would have been. Peter Angelos has been very patient. Now, it's probably too late to save this season given that the team looks so dreadful, so Ray might stay. He also might stay because I don't think Peter Angelos sees any better candidates available at the moment.

Largo, Maryland: Do you think the Orioles need to overhaul the whole club? Starting from the top on down? The old saying is, it's not how much money you spent, but what you "get" with the money that you do spend. See Arizona Diamondbacks

Richard Justice: The Orioles need to take a step back and get a logical, stick-with-it plan. Lower the payroll, stop depending on big money free agents and pray that the farm system is productive. I think fans would like to see a younger more enthusiastic team even if the team didn't finish .500. Remember in 1989 everyone loved that team even before the season, and the only promise that season was that it would play hard and be exciting.

Waldorf, Maryland: With the recent acquisition of 7 players taken in the top 50 players in the amateur draft, how long of a timeline do you believe it will take for the Baltimore Orioles to get back to the playoffs? ... The World Series?...

Richard Justice: I think in baseball you have to look at it two years at a time. The Orioles have a problem in that they have financial commitments to some players who need to be replaced. The timeline depends on these kids and the kids who are already in the system. If Jerry Hairson and Calvin Pickering are as good as the Orioles hope, if Jayson Werth is the catcher they hope he'll be and if the young pitchers like Matt Riley and Juan Ramon Guzman make it to the big leagues, there'll be lots to be optimistic about. That is about all the time we have for today's discussion. Join us again next Tuesday when Rachel Alexander, The Post's beat writer for the NHL and Capitals, will field questions on the Stanley Cup finals.

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