Many questions, but not a lost season


September 30, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

To dismiss this as a lost season for the Orioles is overstating the matter. The year did end in disappointment, but it was not without accomplishments.

The club did a wonderful job of pocketing money, for instance. With the lowest payroll in the major leagues and tickets prices up from 1989, the Orioles led all clubs in saves -- the kind for which owners really cheer.

They also learned that Ben McDonald is the real thing, that Randy Milligan is a keeper at first base, that Bill Ripken can hit for average, that Dave Johnson is more than a heartwarming story.

They learned that David Segui looks like a player, that Jose Mesa looks like a pitcher, that a bullpen of Gregg Olson, Mark Williamson and Curt Schilling could be formidable.

Almost as important as any of that, though, is this: They learned that they need help, that even in a weak division they can contend only if everybody makes a notable contribution and almost nobody gets injured -- and that isn't going to happen more than once (see: 1989).

They are talking about making changes, and the winter should be interesting. Do they go after a free agent? Make a trade? Both? What positions do they fill? Do they spend some of their savings? Trade away some prospects? Re-sign Mickey Tettleton?

Let's start with that last one. Tettleton has had a nightmarish 1990, but letting him go would create another hole, and the club already has enough. Catching isn't the Orioles' problem. Tettleton and Bob Melvin, combined, have almost 20 home runs and more than 80 RBI.

The Orioles should sign Tettleton. There just aren't many competent catchers who can switch-hit with power. The Orioles won't replace him with anyone better. Tettleton does have 13 home runs, and his .360 on-base percentage is far from shabby. He isn't going to cost as much, either, after this season.

A tougher question is how to add substance to the offense. This is the No. 1 priority. The club is talking about finding a veteran pitcher to provide stability, and that's fine, but if talented prospects are going to be traded or money spent on a free agent, hitters are a more urgent need.

The Orioles' young pitchers were inconsistent this year, primarily because of the impotent offense supporting them. They knew they had little margin for error, and that's not an easy life. The franchise is deep in young pitchers; hitting is what it needs.

The front office appears to be leaning toward trying to rectify this with a trade instead of a free agent. That isn't an easy call. A trade involves giving up young talent. Free agency involves giving up a second-round draft pick. Neither is a pleasant option.

Trading gives you more players from which to choose (Alvin Davis? Mike Greenwell?), and the free agent list is not strong. There are some possibilities on the list, though, and that is the course the Orioles should take.

Why? Because it is a baseball sin to trade prospects, particularly pitchers. It usually winds up a mistake. Prospects are just that -- prospective players, not yet the real thing. They're young, and a fair percentage don't realize their potential. A club usually needs twice as many as it appears. That is especially true of pitchers.

The Orioles said last week that they have enough prospects to make a trade. That's a worrisome comment. You never have enough. This management group has said all along that patience was its strength. This is not the time to forget that. Young pitchers should not be traded.

This leaves us with the big question: What free agent is worth signing? Darryl Strawberry is either staying in New York or going to Los Angeles. Toronto can't afford to let George Bell go. Let's talk realistic choices.

Boston's Tom Brunansky is a 20-homer, 80-RBI guy. He's having a down season, but before that, he had seven straight with at least 20 homers. He just turned 30, so he's not too old, and he plays the outfield, an area from which the Orioles need offense. It isn't a foolish idea. Let's see if the club spends the money.

Candy Maldonado is another possibility, although not as clever as Brunansky. Maldonado, 30, is having a big season in Cleveland. He's a career .260 hitter and, given the at-bats, is a good bet for 15 homers.

The Orioles also have a name on their roster: Ron Kittle was a bust after coming from Chicago for Phil Bradley, but he did have a groin injury. He's capable of 20 homers. The Orioles should keep him -- if they don't, they just gave away Bradley because they were cheap. (They should keep Sam Horn, too. His production, stretched over 400 at-bats, would be quite respectable.)

Are the Orioles a better team with a Brunansky, a healthy Milligan, a healthy Kittle? Sure. They'd still have that pitching-and-defense foundation, speed at the top of the order, a healthy lefty-right mixture. That, more bats and decent pitching can win the East. At any rate, the season should last longer than the second week in August.

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