With the Baltimore Orioles' trying season nearly three-quarters over and the focus having shifted to the future, fundamental questions hang over this veteran-heavy team. As Frank Wren prepares for his first full offseason as their general manager, he is ushering in a major organizational shift in the way the Orioles build their team.
Traditionally, the Orioles put together their team based on available free agents.
"Those days are over, absolutely over," Wren said. "I don't want to be part of an organization that builds that way. This has been a summer where, with our draft and what we have now in our farm system, we won't have to be a major player" in free agency. Wren, however, noted that the team may still shop the free agent market in some way.
In recent weeks, Wren has been spending more time with the team's minor league teams, charting progress of prospects, listening to managers and coaches, assessing where the organization stands.
"This year and next year, to a certain extent, are both transitional years," he said. "We feel like we have the first group of young players in place who can be part of helping our club going forward."
While he would not discuss individual players, Wren is committed to making the Orioles younger and faster next season. Two prospects seem ensured of being on the Opening Day roster -- second baseman Jerry Hairston and left-handed starter Matt Riley.
Beyond that, movement will not be easy. By next season, five Orioles -- starting pitchers Scott Erickson and Mike Mussina, outfielders Brady Anderson and Albert Belle and third baseman Cal Ripken -- will have full no-trade clauses in their contracts. And three others -- outfielder B.J. Surhoff, second baseman Delino DeShields and reliever Mike Timlin -- are signed at least through 2001.
Baseball sources say the Orioles have made it known they are willing to eat a portion of DeShields's three-year, $12 million contract in order to trade him and make room for Hairston, who would become the first homegrown everyday player in the Orioles lineup since Cal Ripken in 1981.
Beyond that, these are the major personnel questions that will shape Wren's regime this winter:
Will Anderson be moved from center field to left?
Last week, Orioles Manager Ray Miller said the Orioles "need someone who can fly" in center field and that it is "obvious" Anderson has lost range.
But Wren said today the Orioles will not be in the market for a big-time major league center fielder this winter. Class AAA center fielder Eugene Kingsale is out of minor league options, and the Orioles will either have to have him on their Opening Day roster next season or trade him. Luis Matos, the best center field prospect in the system, is at least another year away.
Anderson's future also raises the question of what to do with Surhoff, who is having a career year at age 35, and has become one of the top left fielders in the league.
Although the Orioles could shift Anderson to left, Surhoff to right and use Albert Belle as a full-time designated hitter, such moves seem unlikely.
Will the Orioles attempt to sign catcher Charles Johnson to a long-term contract?
At 27, Johnson is a rare commodity -- a young catcher with an outstanding arm and 30-homer potential, the kind of cornerstone player a team normally would seek to lock up in a lengthy deal. Johnson will be eligible for arbitration after this season, and likely will command around $6 million.
However, the Orioles have not approached Johnson about a long-term contract, and a team source said the team is wary of trying to negotiate with Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, who is known for his tough negotiating stances. Johnson is the first Boras client to play for the Orioles.
"I'd like to stay in Baltimore," Johnson said. "But it's really up to the team."
Wren, who as the assistant GM of the Florida Marlins successfully negotiated with Boras for a contract extension for closer Robb Nen, would not discuss the team's plans for Johnson, other than to point out there is no urgency to sign him to a long-term deal, since he does not become eligible for free agency until after the 2000 season.
Will the Orioles make a run at Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez?
This week, a clause in Mike Bordick's contract kicked in, extending the 34-year-old shortstop's contract through next season.
"I'm real happy about it," Bordick said. "Hopefully I'll get an opportunity to come back here next year."
Bordick is having a career year, on pace to match or surpass career highs in home runs, RBI and doubles. Moved from the bottom of the order to the second spot this season, he already has scored a career-high 65 runs. He leads American League shortstops in fielding percentage and total chances.
However, Seattle's Rodriguez might become available this winter if the Mariners decide they can't keep both Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., and baseball sources count the Orioles among teams interested in a sign-and-trade deal. Rodriguez becomes a free agent after the 2000 season and could command $125 million on the open market, which means there are only a handful of high-revenue teams who can hope to sign him, the Orioles being one of them.
Wren declined to discuss Rodriguez's situation, but said Bordick fits into the Orioles' plans for next season. "We don't have a [minor league] shortstop who is going to be ready in another year," he said, "and even if we did, you won't find a better one than Bordick."