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O's: Deal or no deal?

The Baltimore Sun

Nine games under .500. A stretch of nine straight losing seasons that is primed to extend to a decade. Last place in the American League East. A roster stocked with under-performing and high-priced veterans.

The situation might scream for an overhaul. But as top Orioles executives sift through a season that has gone horribly wrong, they vow to stay the course, sticking to the plan that was supposed to lift the organization back to prominence but has yet to yield such results.

With the trade deadline a little more than six weeks away, there are no plans for a drastic face-lift of the roster, club executives Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette said this week. As poorly as the Orioles have played - they have lost six in a row, including a sweep at Camden Yards by the Washington Nationals - they will not follow the path of the Florida Marlins and have a fire sale, dismantling their veteran nucleus in favor of young and unproven talent.

"In Game 65, I do think that it is too early to blow it all up, but my answer to that question may be a lot different a month from now," said Duquette, the club's second-year vice president. "That's the way you have to evaluate this type of season. The nine straight losing seasons is a factor to some degree, but it cannot override clear and thoughtful thinking about how to build a team for the future.

"You can't let it paralyze you even though the frustration is there through the fan base and through the entire organization. You have to make sure you do what is right. Sound, fundamental decisions have to be the order of the day."

In other words, the Orioles say that tearing down what the club is trying to build is an overreaction to a brutal 2 1/2 months. During that time, the team's offense has woefully underperformed, its overhauled bullpen has sprouted leaks time and again and manager Sam Perlozzo has come under enough scrutiny that his job security has been discussed within the organization.

Yet, the front office has stood pat, resisting the temptation to make a managerial change and declining to shake up the roster because it feels that the rash of close losses proves that better times are ahead.

The Orioles are 6-15 in one-run games and have lost nine times when leading after seven innings. More than 70 percent of their games have been decided by three runs or fewer.

"I don't think it's been a setback [to our plan]," said Flanagan, the executive vice president. "I think that things actually are progressing and we have to be patient. We obviously are a streakier club than we thought we'd be, but there are still 90-plus games left. We have a long way to go. The alternative is blow it up, and I don't think we feel that way with the club."

Duquette agreed, saying the team has graduated from being overmatched as it was at times last year, and now must take the next step and learn to win close games.

Still, patience is waning for the players, especially the ones that have been through this before.

"At some point, you'd like to stop saying we're moving in the right direction. That's what's frustrating for all of us," said second baseman Brian Roberts, who signed a one-year extension this spring but decided not to sign a longer deal because he wanted to see the direction the club was going.

"You can only move in the right direction for so long and still lose. At some point, the time comes where you have to win. I think we're all at that point. I know I am. Losing is a mental grind. It's a physical grind. It's hard. People say losing is easy. Come here and try it. It's not easy."

Said third baseman Melvin Mora: "When you're in last place, that's not a good direction."

Below expectations

The Orioles' plan was put in place several years ago and amended slightly when Flanagan and Duquette took over before the 2006 season. It called for the Orioles to build around their young pitching and veteran nucleus, a group that includes Roberts, Mora, Miguel Tejada, Jay Gibbons and Ramon Hernandez.

It looked promising, but several young pitchers - Daniel Cabrera most notably - have not progressed as quickly as the organization had hoped, and one who has, Adam Loewen, is out for the rest of the 2007 season with an elbow injury.

Even more concerning is that several of the veteran position players, notably Gibbons and Mora, have seen their numbers drop drastically. Even Tejada, who set a franchise record for hits last season, has been criticized for his declining power numbers and range defensively.

That leaves the Orioles with a nucleus that several scouts and executives from opposing teams have said isn't remotely good enough to win in the American League East.

Asked if he agreed with that assessment, Gibbons said, "Honestly, I don't know. I can only look at myself and I'm not getting it done."

Said Duquette: "You're constantly adjusting or refining the plan. That's part of our challenge to view the team as a whole and the sum of our parts. If there are one or two guys that are part of the plan, maybe they don't fit now for whatever reason."

Buying or selling?

Duquette said he expects to be active before the trade deadline, but the next month could determine whether the Orioles will be buyers or sellers. At this point, there are no obvious signs that the Orioles are ready to finally move Tejada, whose trade value isn't as high as it was at this time last year. Mora has attracted some interest, but he has a blanket no-trade clause and he said this week that he wasn't sure that he'd drop it.

"The only thing I know is I am an Oriole and want to be an Oriole," he said.

The Orioles will certainly try to move several smaller pieces, such as reliever Scott Williamson, outfielders Corey Patterson and Jay Gibbons and starting pitcher Steve Trachsel.

"You have to expect some changes," Duquette said. "You can't continue to go in this direction. I think there will be a lot of different options out there available to us, to upgrade or also take a piece or two that doesn't fit here and to move them on to somewhere else. I wouldn't paint us into a corner one way or the other." Several Orioles said that they didn't expect big changes and didn't think they were necessary either.

"There is always talk, always big deals in place. But it's usually just a puff of smoke," said Gibbons, who also said that he expects to remain with the Orioles, acknowledging that his contract and poor numbers would make it difficult for the club to deal him.

"We don't need to blow anything up here," outfielder Jay Payton said. "We need to do a better job as a team with what we got. We're in every single ballgame. You talk about the jinx the Red Sox had or the Cubs or whatever. It's almost like there is something going on here. It would be nice to have a big 40-home run guy. That obviously would not hurt. But I think every team would love to have that."

Starting well

Meanwhile, Duquette and Flanagan insist they have found the silver lining in the performance of the pitching staff. Minus the injured Loewen, Jaret Wright and Kris Benson, the starting rotation, buoyed by rookie Jeremy Guthrie, has an ERA of 3.81, the third best in the American League. That is 1.88 runs lower than it was through 64 games last year.

The Orioles front office did a study recently and found that if they combined the runs they scored through 64 games last year and what they've allowed through 64 games this year, they'd have a run differential of plus 49 instead of minus four, which it was entering last night.

But their offense, which scored 47 fewer runs through 64 games than it did last year, has bogged down the club, putting pressure on the starters and the bullpen to protect narrow leads.

Eleven of the Orioles have on-base plus slugging percentages below their career averages. That's been particularly frustrating for Duquette and Flanagan, who added Payton and Aubrey Huff in the hope that they would improve the offense.

"With the start the club has had offensively, where there is a number of players performing under our norms, never mind their career years [or] just their normal years, I have to believe that these guys will return to the norm and that means there is going to be some good offensive games ahead," Flanagan said. "That's why I think is more a level of frustration than a lack of patience. We think it is a good team down there on the field and for whatever reason, it hasn't clicked yet on all facets."

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