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|Thursday, August 10|
|Are Orioles clueless or right on course?|
|They aren't the Orioles of Frank and Brooks and Earl anymore. They aren't even the Orioles of Palmeiro and Alomar and Surhoff anymore.
Not so long ago, they were considered baseball's model franchise -- playing in their perfect ballpark with their sold-out club boxes and their real-life cult hero barbecuing ribs behind the right-field fence.
And now the Baltimore Orioles are trying to fight the notion that they're practically the model of how not to run a franchise -- with their smoldering payroll dollars and their disgruntled customers and a lineup that has disintegrated from a Who's Who to a Who's that.
Thrift's report: Thrift started his list with his best acquisition, naturally, saying, "I don't think anyone questions Rivera." And that's partly right. No one questions that Rivera, a 22-year-old right-hander picked up from Atlanta in the Surhoff deal, has big-time stuff. What they question is whether he's healthy, after spending parts of three straight years on the disabled list with three different injuries. Asked if he had assurances Rivera was sound, Thrift said: "At this moment, we have none. We've hardly gotten him into our uniform." You would assume, then, that the Orioles at least checked Rivera's medical reports. But Thrift said they didn't do that, either. "We didn't have time," he said. "We had 20 minutes (until the trade deadline). We knew he was pitching at Richmond. We had his day-by-days. We didn't have the medical stuff. We had to rely on John Schuerholz telling us he was fine." Now Schuerholz is as reputable as they come. Still, every other person we talked to said they would have gotten those medical reports. Outside scouting report: "His health is an issue, naturally. It's something you have to take notice of, but not necessarily something you'd back off a deal because of. If he is healthy, and he stays healthy, he's a very legitimate prospect." On Lunar
Thrift's report: "Fernando Lunar, defensively, is a backup catcher. We know that because he's already done that in the big leagues. Everyone questions his hitting. But sometimes, so-called backups learn how to hit and become full-time catchers. No one questions his ability to catch and throw. We sent him to Rochester so David Stockstill, our special hitting instructor, can work with him. We think he's already making strides." Outside scouting report: "A backup guy -- at best." On Richard
Thrift's report: "We think Chris Richard can hit. He was the leading home-run hitter in the Cardinals' organization the last one or two years. So we brought him to the big leagues a little early, because we wanted him to work with (hitting coach) Terry Crowley. He hadn't been playing first base all year. He was playing right field. So we wanted to work with him in Baltimore." Outside scouting report: "He's a prospect, but more like a second-tier prospect. He has a chance to be a big leaguer, but not an everyday guy. He has a little power, but we're not sure it will translate at the big-league level. The rest of his tools are a little short across the board." On Mora
Thrift's report: "We think Melvin Mora is a better player than (other) people think he is. Melvin was trying to learn to play shortstop in the major leagues, and that's difficult."
Thrift's report: "Lesli Brea has a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. Nobody disputes that, do they? And he has an outstanding slider. He was high on a lot of people's lists. He's got good stuff. And I can't believe people wrote he was 5-foot-11. He's 6-foot-1." (In the defense of our fellow writers, we found him listed in four different baseball reference books at 5-11.) Outside scouting report: "Average prospect. Stuff's OK, but won't be a frontline guy. Could wind up as a middle reliever. Wouldn't be the type of guy you'd take in a big deal. Not a guy who makes a difference on a good club." On Fordyce
Thrift's report: "Charles Johnson was a free agent. And one thing we didn't want to do was to go into 2001 with no catcher, with a draft choice instead. And we know with Fordyce, we'll have a catcher. To me, having a catcher is a lot better than having a draft choice. Even the people who think I've lost my mind agree with that. Don't they?" Outside scouting report: "I like Brook Fordyce. He won't hit like Charles Johnson, but he can call a game as good as anyone." On the White Sox prospects
(pitchers Miguel Felix, Juan Figueroa and Jason Lakman, obtained with Fordyce for Johnson and Baines)
Thrift's report: "I heard people say these guys were second-tier prospects. Well, let me tell you. The White Sox have the best prospects in baseball. Their second tier is better than a lot of people's first tier." Outside scouting report: "I don't think they did their homework. Felix is a lower-level prospect. Can't believe they asked for him. Lakman has been a problem guy. Figueroa is the only guy of the three with an outside chance, and he's outside, outside, outside." We could go on with this point-counterpoint. But you get the idea. Thrift deflects the criticism by suggesting, "It will take two or three years until we know what really happened here." And of course, in some ways, he's right. He also says the Orioles "made mistakes in the past by holding onto players until they became free agents, and we got nothing for them." And he's right about that in some cases, too. But suffice it to say the rest of the baseball world is skeptical. As one scouting director from another club put it, "Syd can make this look like anything he wants. But this was a salary dump, basically. It's hard for him to say that with that team and their fans, but that's what it was." Not that the Orioles didn't need to do some significant salary dumping, you understand. You don't need to be Jim Palmer to know they've been too old, too self-satisfied, too Rotisserie-esque for way too long now. But if all this was the start of a youth movement "and this is the group they're planning to build around," said one outside-world exec, "then they're going to have trouble winning." And if this was the beginning of some dramatic new approach to team-building, then why is Thrift now talking about making a major foray into the free-agent market this winter? "We may make more than a splash," he said. "We may make a plunge." He forecasts that the Orioles would sign "two or three big-name players" this winter. Which would seem to suggest they're planning to drive the bus right back into the same neighborhood they just abandoned, only with different riders. And if that confuses you, well, what the heck. At least you aren't the only one. "If that's the direction they're going in, then I'm not sure what the program is over there," said one front-office man. "Matter of fact, I'm not sure there is a program." Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Jayson Stark archive
Stark: Surhoff a 'great fit' for Atlanta
Stark: Winners, losers, and then some
Starting over: O's deal Surhoff, Clark before deadline