- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

Sidney Ponson’s trade to the San Francisco Giants reminds me of two particular stories about the Aruban knight that illustrate the decision regarding the pitcher which the Baltimore Orioles faced.

In the spring of 2000, Ponson gave up a long home run against Juan Gonzalez in an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. I spoke to Gonzalez after the game, and he raved about Ponson.

“He is going to be a very good pitcher,” Gonzalez said. “He made a mistake, but he is going to be very good. Very good.”

That is a story about Ponson’s arm.

One month later, in a hotel room in Minneapolis, Ponson was telling me about what a bad dude he was on his island, and how nobody messed with him there. He told me a story about someone very close to him who once pointed a gun at him. Ponson said he dared the person to shoot.

That is a story about Ponson’s head.

This was the choice facing the Orioles — to invest possibly up to $30million in an arm worth that much but a 10-cent head that went along with it.

Bad investment.

So the baseball management team of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan get high marks for recognizing that and for being able to work the deal to get the best possible value — unlike the 2000 fire sale of six veteran players conducted by the clown who used to run the baseball operations, Syd Thrift. Thrift once sat at a table at the news conference after making the final deal — trading B.J. Surhoff to the Atlanta Braves — when he declared, “Somebody is going to be able to sit up three years from now and say how smart they are.”

Beattie and Flanagan can do that, but not for anything that Thrift did. Only three of the 14 players that Thrift received in the fire sale trades are on the Orioles’ roster: Melvin Mora, Brook Fordyce and Jose Leon.

Mora is a wonderful guy and a great story, but he is slowly drifting back to his level again after leading the league in hitting. He is a 120-game season player on a roster filled with similar players. He would be a wonderful complementary player on a winning team.

Fordyce is a wonderful guy as well, but he is a dime-a-dozen catcher — not a catcher worth $10million, the money Thrift gave Fordyce, compounding the GM’s stupidity.

And there’s Leon, who is a warm body to plug into the Orioles’ roster when someone is hurt but has spent most of his time in the minor leagues.

One of the prospects the Orioles got in those deals — Leslie Brea from the Mets — turned out to be about five years older than the club believed. The prize of the entire package was supposed to be pitcher Luis Rivera, who came in the Surhoff trade from the Braves. But he was hurt when he arrived and never recovered, released from the organization this April.

I think the Ponson trade will pay off a little better, although it is a bit disconcerting that Kurt Ainsworth comes in damaged, recovering from a broken shoulder blade. Indications are that he will recover and be the top-rated prospect everyone believes he is, but you never know about pitchers.

That is why it will be a huge risk for anyone to pay Ponson what he and his agent think the pitcher is worth based on the one year he has kept his head straight. Ponson’s 14-6 record and 3.77 ERA had his agent seeking a three-year, $30million extension from the Orioles. The club, which had initially offered three years, $15million, came back with a $21million offer.

Anyone who pays Ponson $30million has to believe he will be the next David Wells — able to keep the 10-cent head from destroying the million dollar arm. It’s a big leap of faith. Pitchers are such an iffy investment that you want to reduce the odds that it won’t turn out to be money well spent. Because so much can go wrong physically, you want to be sure that at least mentally you won’t be robbed. I don’t think anyone will be able to feel good about bidding on Ponson in the free agent market.

Meanwhile, by getting Ainsworth, left-hander Damian Moss and minor league pitching prospect Ryan Hannaman, the Orioles may have managed to accelerate their long dig out of the pit in which Thrift and owner Peter Angelos buried the franchise. Ainsworth is a former first-round draft choice who was 5-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 11 starts before getting hurt. If he does recover as expected, he and Moss, who is 9-7 this year with a 4.70 ERA in 11 starts, could both wind up in next year’s starting rotation. And Ponson will probably deliver what they want in San Francisco — pitching for the pennant stretch this year and beyond, with the clock winding down on the Barry Bonds era.

Everyone will be happy — save for the team that winds up giving Sidney Ponson a huge contract next year. Three years from that date, someone will probably look as stupid as Syd Thrift does today.

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