In Orioles' creel, Ponson is a keeper, not trade bait; Baseball

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It all sounds so inviting.

Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey is available.

So is Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado.

Either one would look nice in an Orioles uniform, but there is no reason to get your hopes up, at least not this winter. The Orioles aren't a serious candidate to acquire either one, and for one good reason.

Sidney Ponson.

That's the first name that comes up every time a team considers the Orioles as a possible trade partner. The promising young right-hander is popular in war rooms all over the major leagues. He's the first guy the Orioles have to part with if they want to make a deal for a player the caliber of Griffey or Delgado or -- if he becomes available -- Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez -- and he wouldn't be the only guy that would have to be included in the package.

It isn't going to happen.

Owner Peter Angelos isn't going to let that happen, not when the club finally is starting to bring some of its best young players to the major leagues.

Ponson is untouchable. He's getting ready to pop, and the Orioles aren't going to make the same mistake the previous management team made with Curt Schilling. Ponson is going to be a star in Baltimore. Nowhere else.

Angelos won't come right out and say that. He's letting Syd Thrift and his management committee do all the talking for the club. But he has drawn a line in the sand -- the line between the players who might be traded and the players who definitely won't -- and there are only three players on the untouchable side.

Cal Ripken and Mike Mussina are over there, for obvious reasons. Ponson is the other.

The 23-year-old right-hander has yet to break into the ranks of the premier major-league pitchers. He tired at the end of the 1999 season, losing four of his last five decisions to finish with a 12-12 record. His career record is slightly below .500 (20-21), and his hits/innings ratio is not impressive. But, by all accounts inside and outside the organization, he's coming along fine.

That much is clear by the interest in him from other clubs, but he's probably going to be a stumbling block to any major trade talks because it's going to be hard for Orioles officials to steer trade discussions in any other direction.

There is no doubt that either Griffey or Delgado would have a major impact on the Orioles attack, but there is no one else in the organization (except Mussina) that would anchor an Orioles package big enough to acquire either one.

The Orioles have high-priced veterans at every outfield position, anyway, so acquiring Griffey would not be practical unless they were able to move center fielder Brady Anderson, who has veto power over any deal. That's probably why Thrift didn't make any serious overture regarding Griffey when he met with the Mariners at the general managers meetings on Monday.

The Orioles probably would hesitate to make a deal with the Mariners, anyway, because new Mariners general manager Pat Gillick has so much inside knowledge of the Orioles' minor leagues.

It seems far more likely that the Orioles will wait until next winter and hope that Griffey or Rodriguez becomes available as a free agent. Then it will be a simple matter of money and compensation draft choices, though nothing is simple when the asking price might be $20 million a year.

For now, the Orioles should be content to buy a pitcher or two in this year's market and keep the promising youth movement on track. If they can shore up the bullpen, they can compete for a wild card playoff berth.

Then they can try to compete for Rodriguez or Griffey.

In other words, wait until next year.

Blue Jay way

The most active team at the general managers' meetings was the Blue Jays, who traded Shawn Green to the Los Angeles Dodgers in that blockbuster nine-player deal on Monday and dealt 1997 Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday.

If they end up dealing Delgado, they will go into the 2000 season just a shell of the team that made a surprising bid for wild-card consideration this year.

There is plenty of young talent on the Blue Jays roster, but it's hard to imagine that Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar and all of the other good young players on the roster will be able to sustain the organization's recent upsurge if the front office continues to trade the team's top veterans.

Delgado is expected to go soon, and rumors persist that the Jays will also move veteran left-hander David Wells, though general manager Gord Ash insisted during the GM meetings that Wells is not going anywhere.

Cardinals rule?

Griffey and major-league home run king Mark McGwire have been linked throughout the 1990s by their long-ball prowess, so why not find a way to put them together on the same team?

That question apparently has crossed the mind of St. Louis Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty, who apparently was among the GMs talking seriously with Gillick about Griffey last week.

The Cardinals have suffered through a pair of disappointing seasons despite the Herculean efforts of Big Mac. The acquisition of veteran pitcher Hentgen figures to help a lot, but the imagine the kind of excitement that would be generated in St. Louis if the club put Griffey in the same lineup with McGwire -- even if it was just for one year.

Dodger green

The worst fears of the baseball purists have been realized in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers now have the two highest-paid players in baseball.

The $84 million contract that they gave Green leaves him second only to teammate Kevin Brown in average annual salary, but Dodgers officials were quick to point out that the deal -- which sent high-priced outfielder Raul Mondesi to the Blue Jays -- did not have a major impact on the 2000 payroll.

Green's deal is backloaded and Mondesi's annual salary was graduating, so the difference between them next year is relatively nominal -- if you consider two or three million bucks nominal.

One thing is certain, the free-spending Fox ownership group will continue to have a significant impact on the industry at large. The Dodgers are intent on taking the shortest route to the World Series -- regardless of the cost.

Go figure

Remember how everyone scoffed when the New York Yankees hired Joe Torre to manage the club before the 1996 season? One of the New York tabloids responded with a huge headline that screamed: "Clueless Joe!" But Torre is now recognized as the best manager in the business.

The Cincinnati Reds raised some eyebrows in 1998 when they appointed former San Diego Padres GM Jack McKeon as manager, but he also has come out smelling like a rose. He was named National League Manager of the Year on Wednesday.

Catching a manager

The Anaheim Angels have identified eight candidates for their managerial job, and four are former catchers.

General manager Bill Stoneman has interviewed former Angels catcher Bob Boone, former Chicago White Sox catcher Joel Skinner, former Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia and former Angels minor-league catcher (and interim manager) Joe Madden.

Catchers apparently make good managers. On the final day of the 1999 season, seven of the 30 major-league managers played primarily behind the plate during their playing careers.

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