5. Baltimore Orioles
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They've vowed to rebuild, which is good, because this franchise is in ruins
By Stephen Cannella
After years of ill-advised spending on veterans, the Orioles want the world to know that they're dedicated to rebuilding the chaotic franchise from within. Since last spring more than half of the Orioles' 40-man roster has been overhauled, and since last July they've infused their farm system with six pitching prospects through trades. They also showed unusual restraint in the free-agent market this winter, spending a relatively low (for them) $47.1 million to sign first baseman David Segui, shortstop Mike Bordick and righthander Pat Hentgen. True, some of that restraint was involuntary, so difficult was it to woo free agents to Baltimore, but it's a start. "This is an exciting, adventurous time for us," says general manager Syd Thrift. "We're changing from one type of team to another."
That's the company line, anyway. For all the bravado over the long-overdue youth movement -- the team's new ad slogan exhorts fans to bring the kids to see the kids -- there will be few young'uns on the field in 2001. Seven of the nine position players in the Orioles' likely Opening Day lineup are 29 or older, and the average age of their projected 25-man roster is 29.6. "We may not be young chronologically," says Thrift, "but we have a lot of players with zero to three years of experience."
That translates into a team that, in the words of one AL scout, will be "very, very bad." And even worse, now that rightfielder Albert Belle will likely retire because of a degenerative hip. The absence of Belle creates a chasm in the lineup, as Segui is the only other current Oriole to have driven in 100 runs since 1996. The free-agent loss of Mike Mussina leaves an equally massive gap in the rotation. Righthander Sidney Ponson has top-of-the-rotation stuff but is inconsistent, righthander Jose Mercedes is an enigma, and Hentgen is more workhorse than ace.
The Orioles will consider this season a success if they turn up a few more players like Kohlmeier. Unable to crack the team's 40-man roster last spring, the native of tiny Cottonwood Falls, Kans. (pop. 889), went to Triple A Rochester hoping to earn an invite to the big league camp in 2001. But when Mike Timlin was traded to the Cardinals in July, the Orioles called up Kohlmeier and thrust him into the closer's role. He nailed down his first 11 save opportunities.
His fastball reaches only the low 90s, but Kohlmeier has a darting slider and a deceptive delivery that makes picking up the ball difficult for hitters. He finished with 13 saves (blowing just one) and brought some sanity to a bullpen that finished with the AL's second-worst relief ERA (5.58) and was tied for the third-most walks despite pitching the fewest innings. His emergence also signaled the Orioles' commitment to giving their kids a chance. "A few years ago the common thinking [among Orioles minor leaguers] was you were pitching for every other major league team," says Kohlmeier. "If you pitched well, maybe you'd get traded somewhere you could get a shot."
After two seasons of shuttling between the majors and Triple A, second baseman Jerry Hairston will get a shot too. If the 11th-round pick in '97 holds the job, he'll be the first every-day player the Orioles have drafted and developed since Ripken in the early '80s. There aren't many more on the immediate horizon: An examination of Baltimore's farm system reveals a youth movement that's still several years away from bearing fruit, especially since top pitching prospect Luis Rivera, 22, went down with a torn labrum during spring training. "You have to plant the seeds and allow them to grow before you can harvest," says the 71-year-old Thrift, a former high school English teacher who can still kick around the occasional metaphor. "For us, 2003 is the year for fruition."
Issue date: March 26, 2001