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Five weeks with no answers leave O's plenty of questions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A season of hope has given way to new levels of despair.

The Orioles exceeded their loftiest expectations for nearly five months and then had five of the worst weeks they could ever imagine.

It turns out the Orioles' 4-32 record to close the season represents their worst 36-game stretch in franchise history. They started the 1988 season with 21 consecutive losses, and after 36 games, that team was 5-31.

When it comes to late-season collapses, this one rates with 1986. That year, the Orioles were sitting in second place on Aug. 5, two games behind the Boston Red Sox with a 59-57 record. From there, they went 14-32 and finished the season in seventh.

"I think this has been a little more stressful because of the way it's happened," said Orioles first base coach Rick Dempsey, a catcher on the 1986 team. "We played so well most of the season, and then things just kind of snowballed."

The Orioles climbed their way to the .500 mark on Aug. 23 and fell straight down the mountain. At 63-63, they had as many wins as they had all of last season, and they wound up finishing 67-95.

It was their fifth straight losing season and fifth straight year sitting in fourth place in the American League East.

"It was easier [in 1986] because the people there had experienced a lot of success," said Orioles broadcaster Mike Flanagan, a pitcher on the 1986 team. "That had been a team that had grown up together, had success in the middle, and now age and time was creeping up on a number of us at the same time, which is the normal transition of the game.

"I remember feeling that changes were coming."

The feeling is similar today, and as the Orioles head into what figures to be another busy offseason, here are the five biggest questions:

1. Is Syd Thrift coming back?

Of all the decisions this franchise must make, this is the biggest, because it will determine who steers the ship through the offseason and beyond.

At midseason, Peter Angelos said: "Syd is here to stay," but the owner has been quiet on the subject of his vice president for baseball operations ever since, leading several people inside the organization to speculate that a change could be coming. Yesterday, Thrift hinted he might be ready to step aside, saying his one regret is he hasn't had more time to spend with his family.

If the position opens, Angelos has some potential candidates in his midst, including Flanagan, who remains a respected figure in the warehouse and in the clubhouse.

Such a move would allow for some continuity, because Angelos has already invited manager Mike Hargrove and the entire coaching staff to return next season. Thrift has made several solid acquisitions -- Jorge Julio, Gary Matthews, Rodrigo Lopez -- but many inside the organization feel Thrift's removal would provide addition by subtraction.

2. Will they spend for a big free agent?

Five weeks ago, when the Orioles were at .500, everything seemed to be going according to plan. That was the goal Angelos set for the team during spring training, with the implication that if they made that step, he'd be ready to spend more money on the free-agent market to put the team over the hump in 2003.

Now, none of that is certain.

The Orioles already have $46.6 million committed to nine players for next season, including $13 million for the final year of Albert Belle's contract. About 70 percent of Belle's salary is covered through insurance, but it serves as a painful reminder of the dangers of signing high-profile free agents.

Angelos also cites serious financial concerns with the threat of a team moving to Washington, something that will surely affect his desire to sign anyone to a big, long-term contract.

But in the first year after Cal Ripken's retirement, the Orioles drew fewer than 3 million fans for the first time at Camden Yards, not counting the strike-shortened 1994 season. This underscored the importance of having a marquee player who can put fans in the seats.

"I think it's real important to have a big bat in the middle of the order," Hargrove said.

Some potential free agents who might be a fit include Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome, Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent and Boston Red Sox outfielder Cliff Floyd.

If the Orioles decide they also need pitching, they could sign one of three left-handers expected to be on the market: Chuck Finley (St. Louis Cardinals), Jamie Moyer (Seattle Mariners) or Shawn Estes (Cincinnati Reds).

Angelos will set his budget, and the Orioles will go from there.

3. Will they trade Sidney Ponson?

Thrift hasn't made a trade since he acquired outfielder Matthews from the New York Mets for left-handed reliever John Bale. After standing pat at this year's trade deadline, the Orioles must again decide whether to keep starting pitcher Ponson.

Some of their trade options became more limited this season, as Scott Erickson and Jason Johnson combined to win just 10 games.

Erickson looked like a trade target in early May, when he was sitting with a 3-2 record and 3.45 ERA. But in his first season back from reconstructive elbow surgery, Erickson hit a wall during August, and now the Orioles would have a hard time moving his $5.6 million salary.

Johnson is under contract for $2.9 million next year, but he'd be hard to move unless another team chalks up his 5-14 record to bad luck. He broke two fingers in separate freak accidents, went on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and saw his team score two runs or fewer in 11 of his 22 starts.

Ponson, who turns 26 in November, didn't have the best luck either, as he posted a career-best 4.09 ERA and still finished 7-9. He'll be eligible for free agency after next season, and with no progress being made toward a long-term deal, Ponson remains this team's prime trade target.

"I want to be here," Ponson said. "Everybody knows that. I've been saying it for years."

4. Will they retain Mike Bordick and Pat Hentgen?

Bordick finished the season and perhaps his career with a 110-game errorless streak, the longest ever by a major-league shortstop. He is contemplating retirement, and if he puts that on hold, he doesn't want to play for any team but the Orioles.

Bordick, 37, represents all that is good about this current Orioles team, but he is eligible for free agency, coming off a season where he made $5 million and hit a career-worst .232.

The Orioles might try to persuade Bordick to return at a reduced price, and they will weigh bringing him back against signing a free-agent shortstop such as Deivi Cruz, Royce Clayton or Neifi Perez, who is eligible for arbitration and might be non-tendered by the Kansas City Royals.

Hentgen, who turns 34 in November, underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in August 2001, returned this month ahead of schedule, but struggled, going 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA.

Thrift met with Hentgen's agent, Bob LaMonte, this month, and it appears the Orioles plan to buy out the $6 million option on Hentgen's contract for $600,000 and then negotiate with him as a free agent.

5. How can they fix the farm system?

With the exception of second baseman Jerry Hairston, the Orioles haven't had an everyday player rise through their minor-league system since Cal Ripken arrived in 1981.

The system seemed to hit rock bottom this year, as Triple-A Rochester, Double-A Bowie and Single-A Frederick all struggled, and Rochester severed ties with the Orioles.

Regardless of what happens with Thrift, minor-league director Don Buford will probably be reassigned and one scenario has scouting director Tony DeMacio moving into a role overseeing both scouting and player development.

Thrift points to the success at the lower ranks as a sign of hope. The club's other four affiliates combined to finish 176-168, and any reorganization will probably move coaches and managers up through the ranks. Still, four minor-league coaches have already been fired, and more housecleaning could be on the way.

Orioles awards

Most improved: Gary Matthews

Mike Hargrove calls Jerry Hairston his most improved player, but Matthews arrived from the New York Mets in April with a .217 career average and eventually became a mainstay as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup. Hitting coach Terry Crowley reminded Matthews to concentrate on contact, not home runs, and Matthews hit .295 in his final 35 games before injuring his right wrist in late August.

Biggest disappointment: Jason Johnson

After going 1-10 in 2000 and 10-12 last year, Johnson received a two-year, $4.7 million contract and proceeded to go 5-14. He broke two fingers on his right hand in separate freak accidents and also went on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis. His run support was poor, and Johnson posted a respectable 4.59 ERA, but it wasn't the breakthrough season the Orioles needed.

Biggest surprise: Rodrigo Lopez

Lopez had six starts and no wins for the San Diego Padres in 2000, and his best work coming into this season came for the Culiacan Tomato Growers of the Mexican Winter League. His agent called Syd Thrift, trying to find Lopez a job. The Orioles planned on having him pitch at Triple-A Rochester and watched him blossom.

Biggest reason for optimism: Jorge Julio

If the Orioles had to start over and could only pick one player to build around, Julio might be their best bet. At 23, he showed he had more than a 100-mph fastball. He also has the mental toughness to close games, earning 25 saves and posting a 1.99 ERA. Now, if the team could just give him some more save opportunities.

Biggest reason for pessimism: The young starting pitchers

Erik Bedard was the latest in a long line of pitching prospects to need reconstructive arm surgery. At the major-league level, Johnson, Sidney Ponson and Josh Towers all went another year with the Orioles waiting for them to turn the corner.

STAGGERING TO THE FINISH

A few Orioles numbers since they reached .500 on aug. 23:

Won-lost 4-32

Batting average .213

Runs scored/game 2.86

ERA 5.63

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