One year ago, the Baltimore Orioles staggered to the all-star break at 38-50, practically eliminated from the division race by the historic pace set by the New York Yankees. Unswayed, the Orioles decided to keep the team together and make a run at the wild card. It was a losing gamble; although a 30-8 second-half start made them believe they could make the playoffs, they did not come close.
The 1999 all-star break finds the Orioles with a similar record (36-51) and closer to wild-card contention (12 1/2 games back) than last year (15 1/2). Whether this team has the same second-half resolve as last year's remains to be seen. However, owner Peter Angelos seems inclined to begin taking apart his disappointing, expensive team.
"In my mind, I know the direction I'd like to go," General Manager Frank Wren said today, declining to share specifics. "As an organization, we're going to sit and talk and come up with a plan."
Wren is sure to be one of the most popular executives in Boston as baseball gathers for the annual All-Star Game. There are a dozen or so teams in the hunt for the playoffs, all of them with at least one need, but the Orioles are the only high-payroll club apparently willing to make changes.
"There's a lot of fact-finding going on here," Wren said from Boston. "We're talking to other clubs to see what their needs are and who we match up with. . . . We have good players. There's a market for them. Mr. Angelos has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to make us better. If that means trading veteran players to get a return on the future, he's willing to do that."
Although a veteran roster full of long-term contracts and no-trade contracts limits what the Orioles can do, the only untouchables appear to be pitchers Sidney Ponson and Mike Mussina, third baseman Cal Ripken, catcher Charles Johnson and left fielder B.J. Surhoff.
The Orioles' most likely deals involve pending free agents: catcher Lenny Webster, who might go to the Pirates or Dodgers as early as this week; Juan Guzman, whom the Orioles traded for at the deadline last year and who similarly will go to one of the half-dozen or so teams looking for starting pitching help down the stretch; and Arthur Rhodes, a power lefty reliever who has quarrelled with Manager Ray Miller over his role and use.
Although the Orioles have had an unwritten rule against making trades with their American League East rivals, the Yankees, New York has only one left-hander in its bullpen and is interested in Rhodes or 42-year-old Jesse Orosco. The Mets also are high on Rhodes.
Perhaps the biggest decision is whether to keep pitcher Scott Erickson, who is drawing strong interest from the Indians, Mets and Rockies, but who has ironed out his mechanical problems to become again the kind of innings-eater every rotation needs, including the Orioles'. A rotation in 2000 of Mussina, Ponson, Erickson, Jason Johnson and Matt Riley could be formidable, and sources familiar with the thinking of Angelos say he is leaning toward keeping Erickson.
In the first year of a five-year, $32 million contract, a focused Erickson would be a good addition to any pitching staff, although a player traded in the middle of a long-term deal can demand a trade after the season. Additionally, some teams expect Erickson's agents at the Beverly Hills Sports Council to demand a renegotiation of his contract.
Since being hired in December, Wren has made three successful trades, acquiring Charles Johnson, Jason Johnson and Jeff Conine. Outside of continuing to restock the farm system, Wren will be looking to address a bullpen that blew 20 saves in the first half, a record pace.
Miller, whose input will be considered, has often bemoaned the bullpen's raw material, but lately has been campaigning for more speed in the Orioles' lineup, singling out rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston.
"I like our lineup, but when you talk about team speed . . . we're one base at a time," Miller said. "Footspeed can affect certain games. You can't pinch-run for everybody. The biggest thing that makes Jerry Hairston exciting is quickness. It's exciting to see a guy go from first to third or steal a base or run a ball down. I'm not saying everybody at every position has to be like that. But it's nice to have a couple."
Hairston's emergence has made Delino DeShields expendable, even though for now the Orioles insist Hairston will be sent back to Class AAA Rochester after the injured DeShields completes a short rehabilitation assignment in the next week. But with 2 1/2 years left to go on a daunting three-year, $12.2 million contract, DeShields exemplifies what the Orioles are up against when trying to downsize a veteran team.
Center fielder Brady Anderson, whom several contending teams covet as a left fielder, has veto power over any trade by virtue of his being a 10-5 player (10 years in the American League, five with the same team). First baseman Will Clark is in the first year of a two-year, $11 million contract.
Then there is right fielder Albert Belle, the highest-paid position player in baseball (five years, $65 million). Trading Belle would be virtually impossible. He has a no-trade clause until after 2001, and the only way to trade him would be to buy out the no-trade clause.
So far this season, Belle has engaged his manager in a televised cursing match in the dugout, stopped talking to his hitting coach, sworn off the media and is hitting a disappointing .270 with 18 homers and 53 RBI. Belle is known as a second-half hitter, but with the Orioles all but conceding their playoff chances, his second-half numbers don't matter very much.
CAPTION: Arthur Rhodes, left, and Charles Johnson might not be teammates for long if the Orioles start dismantling. Yankees and Mets are interested in Rhodes.