Orioles' savings plan includes draft picks as well as money

January 04, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

When are the Orioles going to do something to improve their situation for next season? When are they going to dump some money into the free-agent market?

If you can read above the third-grade level and spend your drive time listening to talk shows, you've seen or heard that topic discussed more often than Operation Desert Shield in the last few months. But the fact is the Orioles are doing the most important thing for their future.

They've gotten a year older.

That was the bad news seven years ago, when they were coming off a world championship season. But today (two years after 107 losses, lest we forget) the aging process is on their side. If the recent products of the long dormant farm system don't improve as they mature, there is no quick fix method that will substantially improve the Orioles.

This is not intended as a defense of the spending habits of owner Eli Jacobs. It can be assumed that he bought the club to make money, not as a public relations gesture. He might not even want to stay around much beyond the opening of the new stadium next year and the All-Star showcase in 1993. If he keeps the team five years it's safe to say he'll expect to turn at least a $35 million profit on his $70 million investment.

But, if being prudent means protecting draft choices, then the Orioles should stay the course. They have a better chance of getting where they want to go, and getting there more quickly, by hoarding draft choices rather than spending big bucks.

Club president Larry Lucchino winces every time he gets bashed for not contributing to the security of veteran free agents. He gets defensive, sometimes testy, about the Orioles' spending habits.

"We read the [free-agent] market right while we were in it," Lucchino said of the recent spending splurge that elevated mediocrity to an absurd level. "It changed nightmarishly in the course of a few days."

Lucchino will not say if the Orioles had X-amount of dollars to spend on the likes of Franklin Stubbs or Matt Young, two of the expected "bargains" in the free-agent marketplace. "I'm not going to say what our approach was," said Lucchino, who nevertheless gave a hint.

"It's no secret that one of the reasons Young was attractive to pTC us, besides the fact that he's a lefthanded pitcher, was that he did not require compensation [in the form of draft choices]," said Lucchino. When Young required more than $6 million monetary compensation for three years, however, Lucchino could only wonder what his value would have been had his record been 18-8 instead of the reverse. "When you get involved in something like this, it's like a doctor going into surgery -- you have to make sure the procedure is going to work. If you're not sure, you don't do it."

The truth of the matter is the Orioles have fared much better when they've lost free agents than when they've tried the "band-aid" approach.

They lost Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland in the same year (1976, when compensation was not required) and survived because of a solid minor-league system. A year later they struck gold when Elliott Maddox, Ross Grimsley and Dick Drago departed. The Orioles picked up three draft choices in addition to their own, giving them the luxury of making Cal Ripken their fourth overall selection in 1978.

When they lost Rick Dempsey in 1987, the Orioles ended up with draft choices that produced Pete Harnisch and Ricky Gutierrez. Gutierrez played shortstop at Single A Frederick last year and is considered a major-league prospect. They have two pitching prospects in their system, Tommy Taylor and Jeff Williams, because they lost Tom Niedenfuer and Dave Schmidt.

Three times the Orioles have had success signing free agents, but a strong argument can be made that the short-term benefits did not justify the long-term cost. The most productive, Steve Stone (1979), was the biggest bargain until his arm blew out. Jim Dwyer and Jose Morales (1981) were role players. Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase (1985) were major contributors, but on a team that had decayed. By the time the Orioles gave up a No. 1 draft choice to sign Juan Beniquez (1986), a depleted farm system had laid the foundation for three straight disastrous seasons.

At times the Orioles seem paranoid about their Scrooge image. Lucchino too often is overly guarded about the team's "approach." His best defense is to point out that the Orioles are two years removed from 107 losses and have progressed with home-grown talent. If the Orioles scrimp with their minor-league department, that's when they'll have serious questions to answer.

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