Between now and baseball's July 31 trading deadline, the Baltimore Orioles will be faced with several difficult and controversial personnel decisions involving Scott Erickson, Juan Guzman, perhaps Albert Belle and others. Each will require front office cooperation, rapid response time from ownership, seasoned baseball judgment and the will to ignore outside opinion while sticking to firm organizational convictions.

So the next nine days ought to be an absolutely delicious farce.

To get out of the mess they're in, the Orioles will have to do all the same things correctly that they did wrong last winter to get stuck where they are now -- in last place with an $84 million payroll.

To appreciate the importance, and the comedic potential, of what the coming days may hold, we need to look back a few months. The responsibility for the Orioles' 41-53 record -- 25th-best in baseball -- rests far more with those who assembled this team than those who play for it.

In almost every case, the Orioles got exactly the players they should have known they were getting. Reputations have a reason. Will Clark has been injured as often as Will Clark. Mike Timlin has stuff, but perhaps not closer attitude. Delino DeShields has been adequate, but fragile.

As for Albert Belle, he has been as surly and disruptive as Albert Belle. This is a surprise? He has cursed out his manager in the dugout, made obscene gestures to fans and repeatedly failed to hustle. He even started a petition to skip an exhibition game. So what?

With Belle, the pertinent issue is his miserable season. For $15 million, he's on pace for 103 RBI, but many of those are in meaningless situations. These days, Belle's numbers are chump change for a cleanup hitter batting between two all-stars. Last year, Derek Bell, Kevin Young, Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs and Rico Brogna had 100 RBI. It isn't what it used to be. Is Albert?

Belle has voided the ban on trades that was in his contract. The Orioles would love to deal him, even if they had to eat more than $12 million of his future salary just to make him palatable to another team. The problem isn't so much Belle's attitude as his altitude. He's sinking.

How could such a badly assembled team have come into existence? Because last offseason the Orioles were in pluperfect chaos. General Manager Frank Wren wasn't hired until Oct. 23. He started the postseason race about two laps behind the field.

One day, Raffy Palmeiro would spit in the Orioles' eye by taking $5 million less to leave than he could have gotten to stay. If Brian Jordan wasn't turning down a free agent offer, then Eric Davis or Roberto Alomar was signing elsewhere. The Orioles hoped they could get reliever Jeff Shaw, then learned he wouldn't even be on the market.

Ultimately, most Orioles decisions ended up being driven by desperation, embarrassment or a desire to deflect mockery. Will the same disarray and delay rule the day once more? When the Orioles discover they can't dump Belle at any price to anybody or get much of value for Guzman, will they panic?

At the moment, decisions on the future of Erickson and Timlin are inordinately important. On paper, the pair looks like $40 million worth of long-term baggage. Erickson is 5-8 with a 5.70 ERA. Timlin has an amazing 14 losses/blown saves. How can a pitcher with a 96 mph fastball, an occasionally unhittable sinker and a 31-save season in his resume be that atrocious?

Both are true baseball Mystery Men. Recently, Erickson has looked like the pitcher who went 54-36 (.600) as an Oriole before this season. Yet, in April and May, without his career-long personal catcher, Lenny Webster, and his favorite pitching coach, Mike Flanagan, Erickson looked lost and dispirited.

Which Erickson is the real Erickson? If the old Scott is about to reappear, you would be nuts to trade him. It's a long shot you would get anything close to equal value in the midst of a bad season. Imagine a 2000 rotation of Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson, Erickson, rookie Matt Riley and Jason Johnson. With luck, all you would need to have a contender would be a closer.

So, the Erickson of '98 is the last person you would want to subtract. But the Erickson of '99 is the first. "That's the problem," said Wren this week. Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall when the Orioles' competing front-office factions try to lobby owner Peter Angelos on this decision?

Timlin's status is equally perplexing. Manager Ray Miller lost confidence in him long ago. With cause. The bullpen killed the season and Timlin killed the bullpen. Still, when you give a closer a four-year deal, that's an organizational commitment. You have to find out what you've got. A closer who had a first-half slump? An overpriced but still valuable setup man? The world's most expensive middle reliever? Or a total bust?

Until the verdict is in, Orioles decision-making is partially paralyzed.

"Usually, you create closers, you don't find them," says Wren, perhaps taking a justified dig at Miller. The manager certainly hasn't done much to "create" Timlin. The 33-year-old wasn't used consistently in the early season when Miller seemed, unconsciously, to be in a save-my-job mode.

In sports, we assume there's a solution for anything. Especially for a rich team that draws full houses almost every night. But, sometimes, an equation is insoluble. There are too many variables. You just have to cross your fingers and hope.

If the Orioles make no dramatic moves (except to trade Guzman), two months from now they may have a red-hot Belle, a reliable Erickson, a useful Timlin and a future that -- with the addition of a free agent reliever -- might be surprisingly bright for 2000.

Or, they might have an aging, cantankerous Belle, a badly fading Erickson, a discredited Timlin and a lost opportunity to trade for young pitching or outfield prospects.

When you're on a losing streak -- at the tables in Las Vegas or in the plush offices of a big league ballclub -- it's hard to think clearly. The pressure of failure crosses your wires. In the back of your mind you fear: Whatever I chose, it will be wrong.

That's where the Orioles are now. They did it to themselves. Their past blunders encircle them. In this inverted world, the odds are that the worst available decision will look temptingly like the best to them.