What's in number? Plenty of solutions


PHILADELPHIA - Three months ago, few could have envisioned the scenario that surrounds the Orioles on the final day of the season's first half.

They are closer to their division's lead than the Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds or Texas Rangers, yet find themselves faced with a clubhouse renovation that could begin as early as this week's All-Star break.

Arguably the game's best team three years ago, the Orioles may be its most scrutinized this season. They are what one scout recently classified as "the Rolling Stones of baseball," a team laden with grand names and several future Hall of Famers, but also one in undeniable decline.

With changes imminent, what better time than the game's midsummer pause to suggest the Orioles' 10-step recovery program based upon the input of players, club and industry sources.

Majority owner Peter Angelos holds ultimate sway, and his views are not among those that follow.

But the road he and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift choose in the next several weeks will likely have a profound effect on the team's midterm future.

Here are the 10:

1. Re-sign Mussina.

Retaining Mike Mussina would give the Orioles a young, proven ace (age 31) capable of winning 20 games in a season or a Cy Young Award - things he has yet to accomplish.

Just as significantly, signing Mussina before season's end tells the rest of the industry, including a rich free-agent pool, that the Orioles possess the signature pitcher crucial for a return to contention.

Angelos continues to resist Mussina's request for a sixth guaranteed season and his bid for an average salary of about $14 million without deferred money. More importantly, both sides insist they want Mussina to remain part of this franchise and this community.

Mussina could serve as a lure for other free agents. His absence might send a negative signal that could further hinder a team in need of a makeover.

2. Formulate a plan

Thrift insists one is in place for this year and beyond. If so, he has withheld its contents from virtually everyone within the organization.

"There is no discernible plan," one front office member confided earlier this season. "The plan may be to put together a plan."

Frozen by fear of leaks and what they consider inevitable negative publicity, the Orioles have yet to make a bold stroke during Thrift's regime. The incessant bullpen makeover that began last winter suggests a team trying to tweak a contender rather than laying a foundation for the future.

Thrift and Angelos rejected minor-league pitching for Scott Erickson. In talks involving 36-year-old left fielder B.J. Surhoff, they failed to jump at the New York Yankees' three-player package that the Cleveland Indians accepted for left fielder David Justice.

Thrift is enamored with Yankees shortstop Alfonso Soriano, but supposedly only within a three-player package scoffed at by Yankees GM Brian Cashman. After the Yankees nixed the Orioles' bid, they grew impatient with Thrift's inability to counter.

Orioles officials maintain Surhoff is a superior player to Justice, and they may be correct. However, the process may be more revealing in this case.

As one disillusioned insider complained recently: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

3. Sell the plan

Orioles fans give the club more than 3.5 million reasons every year to explain the direction they intend to take. However, the team's faithful has only been teased.

The club has long centered its marketing efforts around Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina and, to a lesser extent, Albert Belle. There is nothing to prevent them from going public after their first significant move to explain their future course.

Recently criticized as too passive, Orioles fans remain among the game's most knowledgeable and certainly among its most devoted. The warehouse has never shied from describing the team as "product." Is there anything wrong with its "customers" being informed about the direction of the "company" it patronizes.

4. A common touch?

Much has transpired since Angelos saved the franchise for Baltimore. Controversial personnel moves, three consecutive disappointing seasons and an apparent disregard for the local media have cemented a popular opinion of the majority owner as aloof, meddling and smitten with the D.C. market.

No one is more capable of changing that image than Angelos himself. He can speak passionately about his love for this team and this city and the connection between the two. Let him put forth his viewpoints, mingle among his team's fans and, yes, maybe engage in some give-and-take.

He will encounter a fan base that doesn't despise; it only cares.

5. Albert Belle, DH

No one disputes that the Orioles are a better defensive team without Belle in right field. The cleanup hitter tied for the league lead in assists last season, but is defined more by his lack of range and inconsistent desire to play the position.

Yet, overwhelming reluctance exists to move Belle. He makes $13 million, and might the appearance of paying such a huge salary to a one-dimensional player be embarrassing?

Might Belle revolt, sulk and become a handful for manager Mike Hargrove? Might he become disgusted and agree to waive his blanket no-trade clause? Or might Belle accept the career move?

With rookie Luis Matos turning heads, especially in the outfield, shouldn't the Orioles find out?

6. No no-trade clauses

The Orioles cannot trade Mussina, Belle, Scott Erickson, Brady Anderson, B.J. Surhoff or Cal Ripken to at least a handful of teams because of contractual concessions or service time.

The vise has never been as pronounced as in the past eight months. Whatever happens the next several months, the Orioles should vow not to bind themselves so tightly in the future.

7. Commit to stability

Thrift is the third man to occupy the general manager's chair since September 1998. Hargrove is the third manager since October 1997. Sammy Ellis is the seventh pitching coach in seven seasons.

Rampant turnover has not only brought the club industry-wide criticism, it has left its player development system in a constant state of uncertainty.

Whose plan is it today? Where am I tomorrow?

Thrift, 70, is the game's oldest general manager. While John Schuerholz operates on a rolling three-year plan in Atlanta, the Orioles struggle to look three months into the future.

8. Ripken's future

Ripken and his irritable back turn 40 next month. Is it out of the question to approach him about where he sees himself next year?

9. Build from within

It's axiomatic that teams win with pitching. But they can also gain leverage for trades with the same. The Braves have worked the philosophy to perfection while their vaunted starting rotation has undergone little change in the past decade.

Through an outstanding 1999 draft and a less bountiful selection last month, the Orioles appear to be learning the same lesson. A setback to a player such as Matt Riley should not paralyze an entire organization.

10. Codify instruction

Ray Miller's most ambitious - and most inspired - suggestion as manager was to codify instruction within the minor-league system. Too often, players are still learning fundamentals at Double-A and Triple-A ... even in Baltimore.

The problem isn't their aptitude, but having to relearn and adapt at every level. Ripken is the last position player drafted, developed and deployed by this franchise. To deny the reasons is foolhardy.

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