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8 Upper

Trade Deficit

By Tom Scocca | Posted 7/18/2001

Last summer, as the sclerotic old Orioles were being hustled into shipping crates and a bunch of new ones were being hastily unwrapped, it was tough to judge how baseball-operations director Syd Thrift's dealing had come out. How busted-up was Luis Rivera's arm? What position did Chris Richard play, really? How old was Leslie Brea? No, really, how old was Leslie Brea?

One guy everyone was sure about, though, was catcher Fernando Lunar, whom Thrift had picked up from the Atlanta Braves in the B.J. Surhoff deal. Lunar was a joke. His numbers through 2000--a .221 minor-league batting average, a disgraceful .274 on-base percentage--were the numbers of a guy who had never shown the slightest ability to hit at any level. This is how bad Lunar was: As a major-league hitter, coming into this year, he was inferior to Scott Erickson. Who is a pitcher.

Yet Thrift liked him, and the Orioles put him on the roster and kept him there. And this year, under the tutelage of hitting coach Terry Crowley, he's batting .262 with a few doubles (though his on-base percentage still stinks). Great news. Except the Orioles need Lunar to be hitting at least that much, because the other catcher they got last summer, Brook Fordyce--the one Thrift proudly installed as the replacement for Charles Johnson -- is batting .206. So the Birds ended up with one catcher who can sort of hit and one who can't hit at all, just like everyone expected. Only their identities are reversed.

This is becoming a familiar story. Thrift has been in control of the team for a season and a half, and he has been committed to a rebuilding program for almost a full year. So far, those of us who thought he was a thoroughgoing dunce have been pleasantly, if modestly, surprised. But he hasn't exactly been the baseball architectural genius Peter Angelos was hoping for either.

Instead, the team's baseball operations veer so sharply between cleverness and witlessness that you get whiplash trying to follow along. On July 12, there was rookie Jay Gibbons coming off the bench to whack a game-tying home run off Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux--another fine moment for the Warehouse, which basically stole Gibbons from Toronto. Yet the same day, the team announced it was designating Chuck McElroy for assignment, to clear roster room for Alan Mills.

Before last July's roster purge, such designated-for-assignment moves--which mean the club has 10 days to trade a player or it loses him outright--were the way the O's fumbled away prospects as they saved roster space for veterans. Now that the club is trying to develop its prospects, it uses such moves to fumble away its veterans.

Either way, it's a dumb way to do business. It's not that subtracting McElroy is bad--it sure beats having him in the starting rotation, as he was four months ago--it's just that dumping him this way is incredibly wasteful. McElroy is a veteran left-handed reliever. There must be a half-dozen teams in and around the playoff hunt that are desperate for left-handed bullpen help. And somehow, the Orioles weren't able to make a deal on their own terms.

It's not as if they didn't have time. Since Willis Roberts and Josh Towers arrived to shore up the pitching, McElroy has been something of a spare part. Nor is it as if the need to make space for Mills took them by surprise; he had been working his way through an injury-rehabilitation assignment for weeks.

And McElroy was the fourth player the Orioles had lost that way in a month, following Greg Myers, Delino DeShields, and Eugene Kingsale. Taken one at a time, the moves were understandable. Myers was an extra catcher on a team committed to Fordyce and Lunar, and a left-handed bat on a team that needed to get young lefties Gibbons and Richard to the plate. Kingsale was the odd man out after Richard turned out to be a decent center fielder, especially with Larry Bigbie and Tim Raines Jr. advancing through the minors. DeShields was batting .197, and manager Mike Hargrove had explicitly decided to let his young players develop their hitting rather than give the veteran a chance to work out the kinks and raise his trade value. When the club needed to drop someone quickly so it could grab Tony Batista off waivers, DeShields was the logical choice.

But, as everyone knows in the age of eBay, one person's old lunch box is another's valuable collectable. As a group--an experienced lefty reliever, a savvy veteran catcher, a switch-hitting speedster, and a guy who hit 43 doubles last year--the O's castoffs look like half of a medium-high-stakes trade. Those four guys go to a contender, and you get two Triple-A prospects in return.

Unfortunately, only the first half of the equation came true. DeShields is with the first-place Cubs, Myers is with the suddenly resurgent A's, and Kingsale is in Triple-A for the runaway Mariners. But the O's have nothing to show for it. Their scouting may have improved, but their deal-making is solidly, resolutely as bad as ever. There are people, as the saying goes, who could sell snow to the Eskimos. It looks like Thrift couldn't even sell them a snowmobile.

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