The road to recovery

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In five years, the Orioles have gone from one of the premier franchises in Major League Baseball to a perennial loser.

Their failures have become an annual rite of summer in Baltimore.

Their once-proud minor league system has become a laughingstock.

Their tried and true fans have grown increasingly jaded.

With another season set to start tomorrow, Monday, the Orioles are no longer kidding themselves. Hardly anyone has serious playoff aspirations. After a 67-95 record last year, there is no talk of striving for .500 this time or just winning 10 more games.

As the Orioles enter their 50th season in Baltimore, it goes much deeper than that.

This franchise needs serious help. By the end of September, that was clear, even to owner Peter Angelos. Now, it's as if the Orioles have entered into their own recovery program, which goes something like this:

Step 1: Admit you have a problem.

Actions: Firing Syd Thrift. Hiring Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan.

Angelos, loyal to a fault, stuck with Thrift as long as he could. Thrift was with the Orioles for eight years, serving the final three as vice president for of baseball

[Orioles, from Page 1s] operations. He made some good acquisitions - landing Jay Gibbons, Jorge Julio and Rodrigo Lopez - but by late last season, people around Thrift were practically screaming for change.

The Orioles finished the year with a 4-32 collapse, tarnishing the gains they had made by playing .500 ball for the season's first five months. It was their fifth consecutive losing season and fifth consecutive fourth-place finish.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, speaking for a silent majority in and around the organization, said the franchise was "in disarray." The top three minor league affiliates finished a combined 109 games under .500. Clearly fed up, Triple-A Rochester severed its 42-year affiliation with the organization, meaning the new Oriole Way would include a detour through Ottawa.

Angelos went through an exhaustive search to find Thrift's replacement and wound up picking two former major league pitchers to share the job, the right-handed Beattie and the left-handed Mike Flanagan.

Beattie had spent six years as the Seattle Mariners' farm director and six years as the Montreal Expos' general manager before coming to Baltimore.

Flanagan had spent 25 years with the Orioles as a pitcher, coach, instructor and broadcaster, working behind the scenes with Angelos in recent years as a consultant.

Step 2: Make a total self-assessment.

Actions: Hire a new farm director, keep the scouting director and review the others, including manager Mike Hargrove.

When Beattie and Flanagan finally took office Dec. 4, they were dropped right into the busiest season for baseball general managers. They had little more than a week to prepare for the winter meetings, and they were right in the middle of free agency. From the beginning, they were playing from behind.

With a new regime, there's always change, but Flanagan promised it would be more of an evolution than a revolution. They reassigned farm director Don Buford, making him the field manager at Rookie-level Bluefield, and replaced him with Doc Rodgers, the former Cincinnati Reds assistant general manager.

"Strengthening the minor leagues is one of the first things we have to do," Flanagan said. "We need to spit out prospects from within. You can't be looking at free agency to solve all your problems. By developing your own players, you have a cohesive unit when they come up together, and that's how things worked here in the past."

Flanagan and Beattie decided the farm system's deficiencies had more to do with development than scouting, so they retained scouting director Tony DeMacio, giving him at least one more draft to restock the shelves.

They also revamped the minor league field staffs, and five of the Orioles' seven minor league affiliates will have new managers this year. Because Beattie and Flanagan were given such a short window to make change, this assessment will continue through the season.

"This is a year of evaluation for all of us," Flanagan said. "We'll evaluate the minor leagues, evaluate scouting, evaluate all of the departments, and somewhere in late August or September, we'll decide which way we're going to go."

This includes Hargrove, who enters his fourth season in Baltimore in the final year of his contract. Apparently, he still has to earn his next contract extension, leaving speculation that he would be dismissed with another slow start.

"It's not like there's any large magnifying glass on him," Flanagan said, "but we have him for this year, and we'll deal with that at the appropriate time. I think he's pretty comfortable with that, and it's a two-way street. It's a very important relationship, the manager with the front office."

Naturally, the assessment stretches to the field, as well. Under Thrift, players such as Gibbons, Gary Matthews, Jerry Hairston and Geronimo Gil were considered pieces for the future. Whether they will be part of the future under Beattie and Flanagan remains to be seen.

"We've got some young players who had an opportunity to play last year," Beattie said. "Are they going to be better this year? Are they going to play themselves into our longer-term plans? It's a good year for those questions to be answered."

Step 3: Take positive action.

Actions: Try to sign big-name free agents. Explore marquee trades.

The Orioles said they had money to spend this past offseason and never really spent it. They made offers to four prominent free agents - Hideki Matsui, Cliff Floyd, Ivan Rodriguez and Jose Cruz - and struck out each time.

Floyd and Rodriguez were the two players the Orioles wanted most, but they wound up with the New York Mets and Florida Marlins, respectively.

"Going back and looking at the free-agent class of this year, they weren't all perfect fits," Flanagan said. "I can't say we feel badly about the way it turned out because of that. They weren't the perfect players."

The Orioles made several other free-agent acquisitions - shortstop Deivi Cruz, left-handed pitcher Omar Daal, reliever Kerry Ligtenberg, starting pitcher Rick Helling and outfielder B.J. Surhoff - but those haven't exactly created a frenzy at the box office.

They've also talked big about trades, but their efforts to get Ken Griffey from the Cincinnati Reds and Carlos Beltran from the Kansas City Royals, among others, have been futile.

If there's one item on this list where the new regime has failed so far, it's Step 3. But maybe that's because they're paying closer attention to Step 4.

Step 4: Take a long-term view.

Actions: Study future free-agent classes. Study future payroll obligations.

In one respect, the Orioles should be in an enviable position come late October: They will have plenty of money to spend within their own payroll constraints on what should be a sterling free-agent class.

The Orioles will save about $30 million off this year's payroll simply through attrition, as their obligations to Albert Belle, Scott Erickson, Tony Batista, Brook Fordyce and Deivi Cruz expire. If none of them returns, that money can all be applied toward a free-agent class expected to include Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon.

Still, Beattie and Flanagan insist they haven't given up on this season. They say this isn't the start of a five-year plan.

"I think a five-year plan just gives you an excuse to lose for two or three years," Beattie said. "There's no sense in doing that. No one has that type of horizon in the game anymore."

So how do they define their plan?

"Our goal is to put the best possible team on the field and have the best possible success year after year," Flanagan said. "Not just this year, not just next year, but to build something that gets up and running."

With each decision, Flanagan and Beattie hope to improve the team now and for the future. Some fans bristled when the Orioles re-signed Surhoff, 38, believing he was blocking the path for outfield prospect Larry Bigbie, but that was done intentionally.

Surhoff was originally signed as a backup, and rather than use Bigbie in a backup role, they can send him to Ottawa and let him play every day. Surhoff can help now, and Bigbie can help in the future.

And though they aren't stating specific goals for this year's team, the Orioles seem to think they have enough talent to finish better than 67-95.

"We definitely want to improve on that and make as big of a jump on that as we can," Beattie said. "It's not, 'OK, if we can just get 10 games under .500 or 15 games under.' It doesn't make sense to try to think in those terms. Your target every day is try to win that game. That's all you can focus on."

Step 5: Make a plan and stick to it.

Actions: Learn from experiences. Picture success.

Hargrove can remember as a player with the Cleveland Indians. He said they had about 10 different five-year plans.

"They'd last about six months," he said, "and fans would get impatient, and, all of a sudden, management would start a knee-jerk reaction by bringing in this guy and that guy, and those five-year plans went out the window, and the people in charge of those plans went out with them."

Years later, Hargrove became Cleveland's manager, and the organization finally stuck to its plan.

"The key phrase around there was, 'Stay the course. Stay the course.' I got so tired of saying that and hearing that, I wanted to puke, but it really was the fact of the matter. And it was a big factor in the Indians having the run that they had, which turned out to be almost a 10-year run."

Beattie learned similar lessons with the Mariners and Expos, and Flanagan learned his with the Orioles, so their first instructions have been given with conviction.

After taking this season to complete the evaluation process, Flanagan and Beattie plan to hold new organizational meetings this fall. Rodgers is putting together a minor league manual for players, coaches, managers, scouts and instructors. There's literally an effort to put everyone on the same page.

"The easy part is outlining it," Beattie said. "The tough part's the follow-through and getting everyone to buy into it. Anybody can say on-base percentage is important, but if no one looks at it as the law, where there's zero tolerance, it doesn't work."

With less than four months to get ready for this, Beattie and Flanagan enter their first season feeling confident things are moving in the right direction. Once tomorrow comes, everyone starts to keep score.

"I think we're pleased," Flanagan said. "We've been put under fire already [for not acquiring a big-name player], and I think when you're in the trenches, you learn about each other. I'm very comfortable with the way things are going."

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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