Jayson Stark
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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.

Orioles deals
The trades the Orioles made prior to the deadline:
  • Orioles-Mets: Mets get Mike Bordick. Orioles get infielders Melvin Mora and Mike Kinkade plus minor league pitchers Lesli Brea and Pat Gorman.
  • Orioles-White Sox: White Sox get Charles Johnson and Harold Baines. Orioles get catcher Brook Fordyce and right-handed pitchers Miguel Felix, Juan Figueroa and Jason Lakman.
  • Orioles-Cardinals: Cardinals get Mike Timlin. Orioles get first baseman Chris Richard and right-handed pitcher Mark Nussbeck.
  • Orioles-Cardinals: Cardinals get Will Clark. Orioles get third baseman Jose Leon.
  • Orioles-Braves: Braves get B.J. Surhoff and Gabe Molina. Orioles get outfielder Trenidad Hubbard, pitcher Luis Rivera and catcher Fernando Lunar.
  • These are your 2000 Orioles: Chris Richard at first, Luis Matos in center and good old Ryan Kohlmeier closing them out in the ninth. Even Cal Ripken might have trouble identifying those guys without name tags.

    But that's what's left of the Orioles after their stunning purge of everyone but the Angelos family. Seven big-name players gone. Fourteen no-name players back. About 20 million bucks tossed overboard.

    Around baseball, people scratch their heads and try to understand what has happened here. Well, Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations for a club that refuses to call anybody the "general manager," has detected that head-scratching. And here's his answer:

    "Sometimes," Thrift said, "We don't understand the things we do, either."

    Thrift chuckled in that folksy way of his after he finished that sentence. So it's safe to assume he was kidding. But there are baseball people out there who aren't so sure. They look at those 14 players the Orioles accumulated in all those deals and see this:

  • One high-ceiling pitcher (Luis Rivera) who has been hurt much of the year.
  • One decent first-base prospect (Chris Richard).
  • Two backup catchers (Brook Fordyce and Fernando Lunar).
  • One interesting utility guy who proved he couldn't play every day in New York (Melvin Mora).
  • One 34-year-old journeyman now playing for his seventh team (Trenidad Hubbard).
  • And seven minor leaguers who are viewed by scouts outside the organization as a collection of slim-chance and no-chance prospects.

    But here's what Thrift says of all those doubts expressed by all those outsiders: "I don't call the same people you talk to. They didn't offer me any advice."

    He also says this: "Whenever you do something, it's never dumb. Sometimes it turns out dumb. But it's never dumb when you do it. If it turns out good, we'll all take the credit. If it turns out bad, I'll take the credit."

    Or possibly some different word than "credit."

    But word games aside, Thrift has a very different view of some of these players he's picked up than the rest of the world. So we're letting him have his say. Then we'll sift through scouting reports on these guys from a half-dozen teams and give the outside world's view.

    On Rivera
    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."

    Up and then down
    The Orioles' year-by-year record since 1996:
    Year W-L Pct. Place
    1996 88-74 .543 2nd
    1997 98-64 .605 1st
    1998 79-83 .488 4th
    1999 78-84 .481 4th
    2000 49-62 .441 4th

    Asked about the Mets' obvious feeling that Mora wasn't an everyday player, Thrift said: "Who knows? He'll keep playing. And we'll find out in the next month or two. The tough part for him was trying to learn to play shortstop in New York after trying to follow the best defensive shortstop in the last 25 years. In the long run, he could be a Tony Phillips kind of guy. But we'll see."

    Outside scouting report: "Melvin Mora is just an extra guy. Period."

    On Lesli Brea
    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.

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