Although it has not been stated to him explicitly, it has been made clear to Frank Wren that he will be back next season as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, despite the team's disappointing season and despite rumblings in April and May that majority owner Peter Angelos was contemplating firing him.
Wren said he has discussed budgets and personnel strategy for next season with Angelos, who could not be reached to comment. Wren, who is completing his first season as a general manager, has two years remaining on a three-year, $1.35 million contract.
Wren, 40, said he and Angelos "are communicating and operating very well," which is in apparent contrast to their relationship earlier this season when, sources said, Angelos was close to firing Wren, and Wren was telling associates he wished to be fired.
Wren declined to answer questions about those subjects, but when asked to assess his first season as the Orioles' general manager, Wren admitted he feels more comfortable now about his job and about the organization than he did in April and May.
"I feel a lot better now about the direction we're going and where we are than I did 10 months ago when I was hired," Wren said. "For the first time we've got kids who are ready to come to the big-league level and perform. . . . A number of things indicate we're going in the right direction. But that said, it was a difficult first six or eight months here. It was difficult in getting acclimated."
The main reason for Wren's unhappiness early on stemmed from Angelos's refusal to fire Manager Ray Miller at Wren's insistence, sources said. While Wren declined to comment specifically about the manager's situation, he said he now feels sufficiently involved in every major decision confronting the organization.
He and Angelos "discuss the future of the club and the direction of the club on a regular basis," Wren said.
There has been no official comment on Miller's situation, but Angelos has told associates he does not intend to pick up the option on Miller's contract for next season, effectively ending Miller's tenure as manager; and Wren and Angelos have made a list of possible successors, including Phil Garner, Tom Trebelhorn and Don Baylor, according to sources.
The chief legacy of Wren's first season at the helm appears to be a shift in organizational thinking, away from a top-heavy roster built through free agency and long-term contracts to veteran players, and toward a younger, faster team built on homegrown, minor league talent. However, Wren denied having to "convince" Angelos of a change in direction.
"The thing that is reported inaccurately is that Mr. Angelos doesn't believe in young players and doesn't want to build from within," Wren said. "I think that's the furthest from the truth. We've never had a conversation when he has said anything other than, `That's how we have to operate to be a good franchise.' . . . He has been fully behind what we are trying to accomplish."
Wren has been widely praised around baseball for the trades he has made this season -- specifically, getting starting pitcher Jason Johnson (from Tampa Bay for Danny Clyburn), first baseman Jeff Conine (from Kansas City for Chris Fussell) and pitching prospects B.J. Ryan and Jacobo Sequea (from Cincinnati for Juan Guzman) and Juan Aracena and Jimmy Hamilton (from Cleveland for Harold Baines).
In addition, the Orioles are viewed as having had one of the best drafts of any team in history, not only amassing 11 of the first 50 picks in the draft, but successfully signing their 13 highest picks.
Wren admits there are "some things I'd like to do differently," but declined to be specific. There were a handful of less successful free agent signings (Will Clark, Heathcliff Slocumb, Delino DeShields), and the decision to keep Willis Otanez on the roster coming out of spring training at the expense of a 12th pitcher has been criticized as well.
Still, Wren refers both to this season and next as "transition" seasons, as the Orioles bridge the gap until a prized group of prospects -- including pitcher Matt Riley, center fielder Luis Matos and catcher Jayson Werth -- is ready.
As many as five rookies could be on the Orioles' roster at the start of the 2000 season -- Ryan, Riley, second baseman Jerry Hairston, utility infielder Jesse Garcia and center fielder Eugene Kingsale -- which also is a departure from past Orioles teams.
Angelos "is as excited as all of us about these young players," Wren said. "There's going to be growing pains, but to say you can't win with young players is not right."
As evidence, Wren offers the 1997 Florida Marlins, with whom Wren was the assistant general manager under Dave Dombrowski. "We had [catcher] Charles Johnson in his second year, [shortstop] Edgar Renteria in his second year and [second baseman] Craig Counsell in his first year. We had three young players in the lineup on a daily basis and won a world championship. It depends on having a good group of veterans around them, which we have here.
"To have a couple of young players is healthy, and it puts you in a position where, as those players get their feet on the ground, that's when your veterans are starting to leave for one reason or another, and you're building your own replacements, instead of going into the free agent pool year after year, which is a crapshoot. That's not the way to build a baseball team."