A 9-2 spurt since the all-star break and a slow but steady climb up the standings have changed the dynamics of the Baltimore Orioles' strategy as Saturday's trade deadline approaches. No longer looking to make wholesale changes, but unwilling to add expensive pieces in pursuit of a playoff spot that must still be considered a long shot, the Orioles essentially are in a holding pattern.
A six-game winning streak has pulled the Orioles within nine games of Toronto in the wild-card chase. However, there are four teams in between the Orioles and Blue Jays. The Orioles open a three-game series against the AL West-leading Texas Rangers on Tuesday.
"We have to evaluate where we are as we go along," General Manager Frank Wren said. "Winning 11 out of 13 [since July 10] has to change your thinking some. By the trade deadline, we might have only one or two clubs between us. That tempers what we were thinking of doing before the break. But there are still things we can do that don't necessarily weaken us."
The Orioles' situation this year as the trading deadline nears is similar to last year: The Orioles went 14-1 after the all-star break to climb back to the fringes of the playoff race. However, unlike 1998, the Orioles likely won't sacrifice prospects to get an expensive veteran for a stretch run, as they did last year when they acquired pitcher Juan Guzman from Toronto for pitcher Nerio Rodriguez.
"We're not going to do anything drastic to trade a bunch of kids who are going to be our future," Wren said.
Although Wren would not discuss specific names, there appears to be almost no chance the Orioles will trade right fielder Albert Belle. Besides uncertainty over the status of his no-trade clause -- team sources say Belle indicated last month he would be willing to waive it, but Belle said Sunday he has not done so -- the Orioles are beginning to see the production for which they paid $65 million over five years this winter. Belle is 18 for 49 (.367) with six homers and 18 RBI in his last 12 games.
The Orioles also have made it clear around the league they are planning to keep pitcher Scott Erickson unless they receive an overwhelming offer. Erickson, who is a relative bargain at $32 million over five years, has won his last five decisions and averaged eight innings per outing over his last four starts.
That leaves the Orioles actively shopping only a handful of free agents-to-be, including right-handed starter Guzman.
In the next five days, the Orioles must decide whether to trade Guzman for a package of players that will address their biggest needs (bullpen, speed) or to keep him the rest of the season with the possibility of losing him to free agency. Baltimore has received inquiries from as many as eight teams about Guzman, and the Orioles feel they would not be weakened significantly by trading Guzman and replacing him in the rotation with a current pitcher in the organization. Doug Linton has won his last five starts at Class AAA Rochester, posting an ERA of 1.22; right-hander Calvin Maduro is 8-8 with a 4.05 ERA at Rochester; Scott Kamieniecki has a 2.79 ERA in his last 12 relief appearances and won 10 games as a starter in 1997; and Ricky Bones averaged 10 wins a year between 1992 and 1995 as a starter.
There also has been strong interest from other teams in acquiring Arthur Rhodes, who is a more valuable commodity. He is a left-handed power reliever who is only 29 years old and has blossomed again in a middle-relief role this month after an unsuccessful stint as the team's closer. Although he still has control problems, Rhodes consistently hit 96 and 97 mph in his last appearance.
According to sources, Wren has put a high price on Rhodes -- asking the New York Yankees for prized infield prospect Alfonso Soriano and asking the New York Mets for two major league-ready players.
Meantime, the Toronto Blue Jays are making a push for first baseman-outfielder Jeff Conine, who has been frustrated over a lack of playing time with the Orioles.
Data: Orioles vs. Texas Rangers, tonight and Wednesday at 7:35,
Thursday at 3:05.
Tickets: Available for all three games.
TV: HTS (tonight and Wednesday), WBDC-50 and WNUV-54 (Thursday).
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7, WMJS-FM-92.7.
Records: Orioles 45-53, Rangers 58-40.
Pitchers: Tonight -- Orioles RHP Mike Mussina (13-4, 3.44 ERA) vs. Rangers RHP Aaron Sele (9-6, 5.56); Wednesday -- Orioles RHP Scott Erickson (6-8, 5.49) vs. Rangers RHP John Burkett (3-4, 5.91); Thursday -- Orioles RHP Juan Guzman (5-8, 4.21) vs. Rangers RHP Mike Morgan (10-6, 5.36).