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Orioles send message: Performance matters

Two developments of note from Monday:

DeJean gone, García is here-ah

Our long regional nightmare is over. The Birds traded pitcher Mike "I Give No Relief" DeJean to the New York Mets for journeyman outfielder Karim García. The Baltimore Sun speculates that other trades may be forthcoming.

The two teams essentially swapped one problem child for another. Opposing hitters blasted DeJean's ERA to the outer reaches of the solar system at the beginning of this season, and although he had been pitching better over the last month or so, he was not really an asset to the bullpen. Moreover, last month's acquisition of Jason Grimsley made DeJean redundant.

The second coming

García, 28, returns for his second tour with the team. His first stint with the Orioles was a forgettable, hitless cup of coffee in September 2000. After many years of posting power numbers in the minors but falling flat in the majors, he had spurts of productivity with the Indians in 2002 and the Yankees in 2003. But he was having a disappointing 2004 for the Mets, hitting just .234/.272/.401 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 202 plate appearances. Those are shoddy numbers for a corner outfielder, and a small adjustment upward for Shea's pitcher-friendliness hardly raises his profile. García has a bit of sock in his bat (.427 lifetime SLG, .185 Isolated Power), but he has not hit consistently for average in the majors (.242 lifetime BA), his strike zone discipline has been shoddy (5.2% BB/PA and 1:4 BB:SO in his career), and he is nothing special defensively. Moreover, he bats from the left side, so he doesn't appear to be a savior for the Orioles' woes against left-handed pitching.

On a good team, García would be an adequate extra outfielder and pinch hitter. Prior to the trade, he had settled into exactly that role with the Mets, as Richard Hidalgo had supplanted him as starting right fielder. In the feeble and injury-stricken Baltimore outfield, however, García suddenly becomes a viable candidate to start. Skipper Lee Mazzilli, who knows García from their Yankees days, plans to start him against righties in the near term. García's first start for the Birds came last night, and he responded impressively with a mammoth two-homer, five-RBI game. But if Jay Gibbons, B.J. Surhoff, or David Seguí should return healthy, García would become less valuable, and he could be pushed aside when his contract ends at the end of the season.

Have fists, will travel

Off the field, García is known for his two recent encounters with the law, and they were more than mere parking tickets. First, as a member of the Yankees he was centrally involved in the Fenway fracas during Game 3 of last year's Yankees-Red Sox ALCS. Midway through that affair, he was at the plate when Boston's Pedro Martínez nailed him in the back of the helmet with a pitch. García slid hard into second baseman Todd Walker on the succeeding play. Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, emerging from the dugout to greet García, exchanged shouted words with Martínez, who pointed at his own head and Posada's in taunting fashion. Later that inning, a pitch to Boston's Manny Ramírez spurred the memorable bench-clearing showdown in which New York coach Don Zimmer charged like a geriatric bull towards Martínez, who stepped aside like a skilled toreador as he shoved Zimmer to the ground. García managed to keep clear of that violent exchange. In the ninth inning of that game, though, García was playing right field and climbed the outfield wall into the bullpen to join his teammate Jeff Nelson in beating a Fenway groundskeeper whom Nelson had found offensive. García and Nelson were subsequently charged with assault and battery, and their trial is scheduled for October 26 in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

This past March in Port St. Lucie, Florida, García and Mets teammate Shane Spencer were involved in a nighttime altercation that apparently started when García urinated in a parking lot outside a pizzeria and a worker from the pizzeria took exception. Incredibly, García and Spencer were concluding a night out with their wives celebrating García's wife's birthday. The government elected not to prosecute the case, although the pizzeria employee threatened a civil suit and the Mets fined the two players for their role in the incident.

García's goonish combativeness should fit right into the void left by Albert Belle, and his willingness to step outside the law to protect his teammates makes him compadre to Grimsley. For all their talk of gaining the psychological edge, the Orioles seem to have no problem picking up questionable characters to fill out their team.

If there is any upside to this trade for the Orioles, it is addition by the subtraction of DeJean. García doesn't seem to have much of a future with the team, but neither did DeJean. But the 14-11 hitter-pitcher distribution gives Mazzilli a wider range of options from which to construct a lineup, and the remaining six relievers should be able to work more regularly now that DeJean is no longer around.

Maz tries something new

The other major development of Monday's game was that Mazzilli made several changes to the Birds' starting lineup against Kansas City left-hander Brian Anderson. Jerry Hairston moved into the leadoff spot, supplanting Brian Roberts, who dropped to ninth. Rafael Palmeiro dropped to sixth from his usual fourth or fifth. Also, David Newhan, who bats from the left side but has had no problems hitting southpaws, was in the second slot in the order, bumping Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada down one spot each to third and fourth, respectively.

This move was overdue, as the Orioles' pathetic output against lefties this year was becoming more obvious and more abominable with every loss against a left-handed starter. The reason Mazzilli took so long to tweak the lineup was his long-suffering faith in his hitters' ability to eventually turn things around against left-handers. If it were up to me, I probably would have removed Matos from the lineup or at least batted him ninth instead of seventh, but otherwise Mazzilli's lineup made sense. And in this game it appeared to pay dividends, as the Orioles beat Anderson (he of the 7.12 ERA) and the lowly Royals, 7-4.

Another significant change in the works is that Mazzilli plans to use a shorter, more merit-based leash for his players over the remainder of the season. The entire team will feel some pressure to produce, now that he is “going to be playing the guy who has the hot hand right now - all over this field,” according his citation in the Sun. For example, he no longer considers Brian Roberts the unquestioned starter at second base. According to the Washington Post he said, “I'll play Brian against some right-handed pitching, and Jerry against some left-handed pitching.” He intimated that an outfielder—likely Matos, or perhaps Bigbie—would sit to keep Hairston and Newhan in the lineup.

Mazzilli's stance is appropriate because Roberts, Bigbie, and Matos have not produced as expected over the season's first three and a half months, and the team cannot afford to give so many plate appearances to hitters with OPS's of .700 or less. It was encouraging to read that Mazzilli spent time before the game talking to each of the affected players about his plans to alter the lineup. Even if a manager makes all the right moves on a theoretical level, if he is unable to communicate his strategy to his players, they are likely to feel disenchanted or even alienated.

For the first half of the season, Mazzilli was patient—some would say passive—toward his lineup, giving players who had produced in the past a chance to establish themselves over the season's first few months. But now, with a half-season's worth of performances in hand and his job apparently on the line, he has shifted his tactics in an effort to maximize his team's ability to win games. And to his credit, he has been up-front with his players about what he is doing and why. This is the kind of leadership that was expected of him when he arrived in Baltimore. If Mazzilli makes too many changes in too short a time he could throw the team into a sea of chaos, but for now the skipper's rudder is steering the team in the right direction.

Comments (1)


i like the chamges so far with Mazz, Matos really does not deserve to be playing although his defense will be missed. The Garcia trade was nothin special except for the fact that we got rid of Dejean!!! what a bust he turned out to be. Also nobody seems to be talking about Eddy Rodriguez, he has done a hic of a job since coming up. I really think the orioles are going to have a very strong 2nd half, I'n not saying wild card, but maybe a strong 3rd place finish with an above .500 record....GO O'S!!!!


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