While stopping shy of classifying his foundering team in transition, Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos insists that whatever changes are made to a $69 million clubhouse will be pointed toward winning in 1999 and not toward a lengthy and painful reconstruction.
It appears increasingly likely someone other than Orioles general manager Pat Gillick will supervise any organizational reshaping. Gillick, in the last year of a three-year, $2.4 million contract, sidestepped questions about his future yesterday, saying, "I've still got a responsibility and a job to do. We have decisions to make the rest of this season."
Angelos, meanwhile, has begun relying on assistant general manager Kevin Malone, not Gillick, as his primary front-office contact.
Frustrated but philosophical, Angelos yesterday cited a laundry list of injuries as chiefly responsible for wrecking a season that began with expectations of the Orioles' first World Series appearance in 15 years.
"Nobody's more disappointed than we are. Should we drape City Hall in crepe or something? You've got to have guts now and climb the mountain. I don't come from a defeatist background. We'll overcome the problem," Angelos said.
The slumbering Orioles tonight open a three-game homestand against the defending world champion Florida Marlins wrapped within a six-game losing streak that has dropped them to 37-45 and 11 1/2 games behind wild-card leader Boston. A disastrous 0-5 road trip to New York and Montreal dumped them eight games below .500 for the first time this season.
Significant changes are expected tonight as manager Ray Miller has promised a revised lineup and hinted strongly at the release of at least one veteran relief pitcher. But emphasis already is shifting toward the long term.
"That was part of the plan regardless of what happened. We were aware this team needed to be restructured," Angelos acknowledged. "We are always aware that in the course of reconstruction there are millions of dollars available for recruitment of other players. That's where we are. That part of the plan will be absolutely implemented. It doesn't take much imagination to realize what we would be doing.
"We've got two of the best pitchers in the business [Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson] on this team. You add a couple like that and you're in business."
The Orioles' 12 pending free agents will earn about $31 million this season excluding incentives. With most of the dozen expected to be elsewhere or retired by next season, Angelos enjoys great financial flexibility for reshaping his team via free agency. Late-season trades could lay groundwork by injecting younger talent into what is currently the game's oldest team.
"While I'm extremely disappointed in the '98 season, I'm confident 1999 will be different," Angelos said.
The Orioles have again made pending free agents Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar available for trade. The move, authorized last week, suggests the realization that this season is now best used as preparation for 1999.
Alomar, a potential leadoff hitter and noted big-game talent, is considered the Orioles' most marketable player with contenders such as the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves interested.
A club source indicated it is likely he will be dealt before the July 31 trading deadline while a last-ditch effort may be made to re-sign Palmeiro before dealing him within a market with little need for first basemen.
Palmeiro remains stained by his poor postseason last year despite numbers meriting All-Star consideration.
"The way most of these guys have been playing, it's going to be tough to make any deal," assessed one club official.
The San Francisco Giants and Orioles have had extensive discussions. The Giants are interested in outfielders Joe Carter and Eric Davis.
Gillick and Malone continue to look for a starting pitcher within a seller's market. With postseason prospects grim, there is little desire to overpay.
"Realistically, you can never know what might happen if you get a pitcher back," Gillick said. "If that happens, you look at where you are and decide a course of action. Look at the clubs ahead of us. Toronto has good pitching, but Boston and Texas are pretty questionable. Another arm might make a difference."
Acquiring another starter would allow Miller to move Pete Smith into middle relief; however, no move is expected before next week's All-Star break.
Gillick said at the time of his hiring that he would honor his contract and then move on. He has given no indication of changing his mind and has told a number of Orioles employees that he plans to move on.
However, he remains reluctant to discuss his plans publicly. "I've got four or five months before that time comes," Gillick reiterated yesterday while on a signing mission in Washington. "Right now I'm concentrating on doing everything to help this team improve."
Like Miller, Angelos attributes much of this season's debacle to injuries that have shredded the starting rotation. Only Erickson has avoided the disabled list while Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki remain out indefinitely. Doug Drabek on Sunday made his first start since June 13 and cleared only 2 1/3 innings.
The fallout has created an impression of indifference. On Saturday, Mussina questioned the club's ability to find ways to win and left fielder B. J. Surhoff observed that the team frequently appears to play without confidence.
Said Angelos, who remains fully supportive of Miller: "People comment about the team being dispirited. I guess you get down when your pitching lets you down almost every game. You look up most nights and the team is three or four runs in the hole. I don't think anyone's giving up. But when your pitching breaks down, it's as if the heart of your team stops beating.
"We've spent the money to produce a winner, but this definitely hasn't been an Orioles year."
Opponent: Florida Marlins
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Marlins' Brian Meadows (6-6, 4.26) vs. O's Scott Erickson (8-6, 4.42)
Tickets: 5,000 remain
Pub Date: 6/30/98