Everywhere I go, the first question anybody asks is, "What has happened to the Orioles?"
This isn't the kind of case you have to call in Sherlock Holmes to solve. No. 1, they aren't yet good enough to win consistently, especially when injuries expose their lack of depth. They need to develop a few more quality players to complete their rebuilding program.
OK, let's admit that baseball is a team game, and even the very good rosters fare much better when they are able to combine hitting, pitching and defense. But, for a team such as the Baltimore Orioles, it is absolutely imperative that they put it all together if they are to be contenders.
The better teams can survive a slump in one phase of play because another phase will carry them for a while. If Oakland Athletics' bats slump for a few games, maybe Bob Welch, Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley will hold the opposition to a run or two and the Athletics can still win. When the pitching falters, the offense comes up with enough runs to offset it.
Not so with the Orioles. No one phase is strong enough to carry the others. For them to win they have to pitch well, hit to their ability and play good defense at the same time. When they have all of their best players healthy and producing, they can be competitive. Too often this season that has not been the case.
All managers like to say you can't use injuries as an excuse. Frank Robinson says it, but he also knows the Orioles, as presently manned, can't cover up for the loss of key players.
Take the pitching. It was obvious from the start of the season that Bob Milacki and Jeff Ballard, the best starters of 1989, were not throwing the way they did the year before. Milacki finally admitted it and went on the disabled list. Hopefully, Ballard just needed a year to strengthen his arm after off-season elbow surgery.
Take them out of the starting rotation, erase setup man Mark Williamson because of injury, then lose closer Gregg Olson and you are left with a staff that needs more offensive support than Orioles bats are able to provide.
The offense often can produce enough runs when the best players are healthy and contributing. But, with Randy Milligan, among their top power hitters, disabled for an extended period and Mickey Tettleton in a season-long funk for whatever reason, the entire lineup suffers.
With them not able to produce, Cal Ripken sees absolutely nothing he can drive with men on base or with the game in doubt. The opposition isn't going to let him beat them with the long ball because so few others in the lineup can. There just isn't enough power in the lineup Robinson fields today.
The outfield of the future, the one the Orioles would like to see take over, is supposed to be Mike Devereaux, Steve Finley and Brady Anderson. Among them, they have 13 home runs. You can't win with an outfield with so little power. I don't mean you should give up on them, because they are good athletes, but they have to develop fairly fast from here, or give way to better offensive players.
There are those who say the Orioles, under the ownership of Eli Jacobs, have become a cheap outfit, and that they need to invest some of their profits in high-priced free agents who can supply some real power. While I agree the Jacobs Orioles haven't exactly earned a spendthrift reputation and might do well to open the coffers a bit more, I hope they don't abandon their building-from-within program and barge into the free-agent market too strenuously.
True, you never say never in baseball. If a young free agent with power, one with a long future, is available, certainly you go after him. But, too often these high-priced prima donnas with more than their share of mileage don't work out, and you set building plans back by giving up high draft choices to get them.
Although some do, I don't blame the organization for trading Phil Bradley. When you are still in a pennant race, and one of your key players, who is still under contract, takes that time to tell the world he is humiliated by an offer of a considerable signing bonus, plus a one-year, $1.3 million contract, he isn't a team player you want in a building program.
Tettleton is the next free-agent issue, and to his credit he didn't handle the situation the way Bradley did. If his demands aren't too unreasonable, I hope they sign him despite his dramatic drop in production this season. This could be just a down season for him, and catchers with power don't fall off trees.
I'd like to see him give himself more swings, though. For much of this season, he took more strikes than any power hitter known to man. Too often, he restricted himself to one cut per at-bat. When you do that, you usually wind up swinging at the pitcher's pitch, which is not the recommended way to produce home runs. And, he might have to alter that stance. If standing the way he does was the best way to do it, more good hitters would try it.
Getting back to the original question of what is wrong with the Orioles, they still are several years away, and need to develop a few additional quality players to provide more power and depth. And, here is one vote that says they should stick with their building-with-youth program to do it.
It will require patience from all of us, but sports has always been great for teaching us to have patience, right?