- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

BALTIMORE The three free agent signings last week by the Baltimore Orioles were important not only to bolster their roster but to save face as well.

The Orioles spent the winter being jilted by every free agent they courted and failing to close nearly every trade they attempted before landing pitcher Pat Hentgen, first baseman-outfielder David Segui and shortstop Mike Bordick.

Before that, Jose Valentin, Tom Gordon, Kevin Appier, Turk Wendell, Jeff Nelson and others opted to sign with other clubs for less money, according to some reports, though Orioles officials deny that was the case. Baltimore came up short in trading for pitcher Dustin Hermanson and shortstop Royce Clayton.

Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations, described the Orioles' approach to building a roster for the 2001 season like this: "We are active and selective at the same time."

But the perception both in and out of the industry, particularly after the recent baseball winter meetings and the loss of pitcher Mike Mussina, is that the Orioles' front office under the 71-year-old Thrift, owner Peter Angelos and Angelos' sons, John (listed as the club's executive vice president) and Lou is in chaos. The reputation of the franchise is at its lowest point since Angelos purchased the club seven years ago.

One Associated Press analysis of winners and losers on the free agent market listed the Orioles as a loser with this description: "Lost ace Mussina to division-rival Yankees, and owner Peter Angelos has been unable to get anyone to take his money. Appier, Nelson, Turk Wendell all turned down the Orioles. Baseball's model franchise of the '70s has become a laughingstock."

That analysis is shared by some baseball executives.

"They don't have a lot of credibility," one general manager said. "Players don't want to play there. That franchise is being run into the ground."

Another front office executive called it a "terrible situation. They seem like they are in total disarray."

One agent, who did not want to be identified, said, "I like Syd, but I think his best days are behind him as far as a GM goes.

Signing Hentgen and Segui will help salvage their reputation somewhat and should make them a more competitive club than two weeks ago. Despite the criticism, the Orioles managed to land Hentgen, who had better career numbers (120-88) and a similar record last year (15-12) to Appier (136-105 overall and 15-11 last year), for far less money. Appier received $42 million over four years from the New York Mets compared to the two-year, $9 million deal Hentgen received.

Thrift said the critics who pounced on the club's inactivity during the winter meetings failed to understand the Orioles' new philosophy.

"We made up our mind about where we were going in the market, and we were not going to be a victim of something we don't believe in," he said. "Some people believe we were 0-for-10 [the number of deals the club was involved in but never closed], but I think we were 10-0. We never had those players to lose, and bidding against yourself is absurd.

"People should understand that we did our due diligence on all the players we wanted. We talked to some in person to make sure of their intentions, and every player we talked to really wanted to be here. Jeff Nelson, for instance, his wife is from Seattle and his family lives there. The others took some of our offers and used them to get more money."

There have been reports that several of the free agents, such as Appier, signed with other teams for less money. Thrift said that was not true.

"I'm sure every player that went somewhere received more money than we had offered," he said. Then, referring to Appier's agent, Jeff Borris, Thrift said, "One agent told a team that we offered far in excess of what we really had offered… . You might say we were being used, abused or whatever."

Borris wondered how Thrift would know what he discussed with officials from other clubs.

"Notwithstanding any comment about the accuracy of the statement, I'm not sure it's appropriate for officials from other teams to be discussing information like that with each other," Borris said. "For him to say that sounds collusive. In order for him to get that information, an official from another club would have had to tell him that."

Despite the perception the Orioles had fallen out of favor among free agents, Thrift believes the club remains one of the better franchises for players.

"This is still an attractive franchise," he said. "Everyone I talked to still thinks this is a desirable situation."

Segui, who reached the majors in the Orioles organization, said he was looking forward to coming back to Baltimore and spoke about it with friends for the last two years.

Several agents backed him up on that claim.

"The Baltimore Orioles are still a very attractive franchise," said Alan Meersand, who represented Jesse Orosco when he was with the Orioles. "Are they in a down period? Absolutely. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone can go to a place where they can instantly win. The Orioles have an outstanding ballpark and a very good manager. The owner has deep pockets, the ballpark is beautiful, the city is nice. The history of the club is great. What's wrong with playing for the Baltimore Orioles? I don't think anything is wrong with it. I would never hesitate to put any of my players there."

Even Borris said the franchise remains attractive for players.

"If I were a ballplayer, I wouldn't mind playing there," he said. "Baltimore is a remarkable city. The ballpark is beautiful, and they draw more than 3 million fans a year. But I do think they have to put a competitive team on the field every year."

That doesn't appear to be the case this coming season based on last year's record (74-88), the questions surrounding the health of Albert Belle and the ability of unproven players.

"With the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays in that division, the only competition the Orioles will be involved in is for last place with Tampa Bay," one baseball executive said.

Thrift, though, remains optimistic.

"We did a lot of work on the Rule 5 draft [selecting Toronto minor league first baseman Jay Gibbons]," he said. "We feel very good about that selection. We also feel very good about the left-hander we got from Toronto [John Bale in a trade that sent minor league catcher Jayson Werth to the Blue Jays]. He could possibly wind up in the starting rotation… . We've added some winning veterans, good team players who are also very community-oriented people. We believe they give us an opportunity to field a competitive ballclub."

And Segui believes the team has improved its lineup over last year.

"It looks more balanced," he said. "I think it will be able to do more things."

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