Time for Orioles toante up, play free-agent field

MIKE LITTWIN

September 14, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

You know the season is lost when scoreboard watching gives way to calendar watching. Vacation officially begins Oct. 3. That's when Randy Milligan goes fishing. And when Ben McDonald goes hunting. And when, if Frank Robinson has his way, the Orioles' management team goes to work.

The Orioles need help. Building from within is a great concept and a sure-fire slogan, but there's another saying, too: The Lord helps those who help themselves.

The Orioles can help themselves, and without scuttling their youth movement. It's as easy as opening up the pocketbook and buying some missing parts. They're available, as the Oakland Athletics have proven, to those willing to pay.

Are the Orioles willing?

"I think so," says Robinson, who openly favors entering the free-agent market.

Larry Lucchino, the team president, says the Orioles are willing to explore all options. Ask him if that includes free agency, and he says the Orioles are willing to explore all options. Ask him what it takes to get a straight answer, and he says the Orioles are willing to explore all options.

The man who will ultimately decide the matter is Eli Jacobs, the majority owner, who says he plays no role in baseball decisions but who also says he determines the team's operating budget.

The decision-making process begins in earnest Thursday with the opening of the Orioles' annual organizational meeting, wherein Lucchino, Robinson and Roland Hemond will stake out a path the team might take. Their findings will still be preliminary, however, because Jacobs does not plan to attend. And, as far as I can learn, no one on the Orioles has ever asked Jacobs whether he's willing to part with some of all that money he's making.

No one has ever asked me either, but I have a plan for the Orioles. They need a front-line pitcher, as Robinson has said. And they need two hitters, one of them a legitimate cleanup man.

"You can't drop the entire load on the kids," Robinson says. "Then they feel they have too much pressure to produce. If you mix in some people you can count on to produce, that makes the young players maybe 75 percent better."

OK, find a pitcher and at least one power hitter. That's the plan. Now, whom can the Orioles get and how?

Although they possess few players of significant trade value, they have enough to package one important deal, while keeping the heart of the team intact. Obviously, Gregg Olson, Cal Ripken and Ben McDonald are untouchable unless there's a Jose Canseco or Will Clark on the other side. But teams are interested in Mark Williamson, Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, Craig Worthington (although not as ardently as before) and a few minor-leaguers.

Often, the best value comes in a player someone else wants to unload, as when the Orioles dumped Eddie Murray. One possibility might be Danny Tartabull, whom Kansas City has been pushing. Harnisch and Worthington for a player with real home-run punch? Finley and Anthony Telford and David Segui?

You make the one trade -- Wally Joyner is supposed to be available, although I don't see where he fits on the Orioles; Alvin Davis might be a better fit -- and then you gulp hard and test the free-agent waters.

The genuine sluggers who might be available are Darryl Strawberry (who's headed for the Coast) and George Bell, whom Toronto probably doesn't care to re-sign. Is Bell a head case? Maybe. Does it matter? Not if he hits his usual 30 home runs. Rob Deer and Tom Brunansky are eligible to become free agents. So are Franklin Stubbs and Glenn Wilson and Candy Maldanado. You're right, there aren't that many options.

But then you look at the pitchers. Bob Welch will probably re-sign with Oakland. But Ted Higuera is eligible. So are Mike Boddicker, Tom Browning, Matt Young, Tim Leary and Zane Smith. Some will re-sign, and some will be lining up for auction. Any of them can help, although it will cost, and maybe more than it seems they're worth. But market price ($3.5 million for Higuera?) is what you have to pay to remain competitive, and the Orioles can afford it.

Also, an important cost of doing business has been reduced. In the past, upon signing a top free agent, you had to surrender a first-round draft pick. Now, if your pick is in the top 13, as the Orioles' will be by virtue of their low finish, you surrender only a second-round choice. The youth movement proceeds apace.

It is an article of faith that the Orioles' decline can be traced to the three free agents -- Fred Lynn, Don Aase and Lee Lacy -- they signed before the '85 season. That's a myth. The Orioles' decline can be traced to the failure of the farm system and, more important, to the unexpected collapse of a still-young starting rotation.

Nobody builds entirely from within. You build around the players you produce, and, in today's world, that costs money. Spending it wisely can pay off on several counts. This is what Jacobs must understand. It can produce a winner -- and it is every organization's obligation to try to produce one -- and it can, if the team is a legitimate contender, mean a packed house in a new stadium and riches only dreamed of.

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