Trade terrific, if Davis decides to stick around


January 11, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles made a terrific trade yesterday. Let's get that out on the table right away. Getting Glenn Davis from the Astros for Pete Harnisch, Curt Schilling and Steve Finley is a good piece of baseball business. "We're a better team than we were yesterday," Frank Robinson said. He is right. They had no hope of contending. Now they do.

They found a team cheaper than they are, a rebuilding team anxious to unload high-priced parts, and got a hitter who could be the backbone of their lineup for five years. They had to give up three players, and Harnisch in particular will be missed, but the three constitute much less than what the Orioles got.

There is only one dark cloud in this sky. A big one. Davis will be a free agent after this season. The Orioles have to sign him. Lock him up for three or four years. There is no alternative. You don't give up three players to rent a star for a year. If Davis gets away, if the club isn't willing to spend the big money to keep him, it is a bad trade.

That, however, is the only way it is a bad trade. Sure, there are other, niggling reasons to grumble. Giving up young pitching is a no-no. The defense may suffer. The club has too much talent at first base and not enough at some other positions. I still say it would have been wise to sign a free agent, get your big bat without giving up anything other than a draft pick. But I can't quibble with this deal.

See, the Orioles' need for a blue-chip power hitter extended beyond just the upcoming season. They don't have a big bat growing in the minors. There was no cleanup-hitting Amadeus on the way. They could sound prudent talking about patience and building with youth, but all the prudence in the world wasn't going to bring them the big hitter they needed.

Without one, they were looking at a long run of the same blend of pitching, defense and scratchy hitting that carried them all the way to a fifth-place finish in 1990. They had to find a major, lasting solution. They did. Davis, who will be 30 on Opening Day, is "one of the top five power hitters in the majors," Robinson said. If the club can keep him, it's a major, lasting stroke.

With Davis batting fourth, Randy Milligan next to him (don't worry, Moose, they still love you) and with Dwight Evans' back holding up, the Orioles rate with any team in the division. You sure couldn't say that before yesterday, which should tell you how big -- and good -- this trade was.

Of course, perhaps the best part for the Orioles is that they gave up so little to fill such a large hole. The intent is not to disparage the outgoing parties, but two of the three -- Finley and Schilling -- can be replaced without missing a beat.

Both could still develop into top players, but it is more likely that they wind up solid, adequate. Giving that up for a player of Davis' ability -- he had an off year in 1990 and still hit 22 homers -- is a no-brainer.

Finley will be 26 on Opening Day and, though promising, still hasn't shown he can contribute consistently. Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux will play center field, and that's fine. Schilling pitched well in 1990, but he was essentially the backup setup man until Mark Williamson got hurt. Williamson is still this team's setup man.

Harnisch is different, a player whose absence the Orioles may rue. It is true he has been erratic. At one point last year, Robinson wondered aloud if his flawed mechanics would ever allow him to be a big winner. The Orioles won't say so, but they thought he would be a bigger star when he was moving through the minors.

But he is only 24, still learning how to do, as George Bush might say, this baseball thing. It may be true he lacks the transcendent ability of an Olson or McDonald, but he isn't without. You're looking at 10 to 15 wins for a lot of seasons. Giving that up is not a good idea.

Still, the Orioles have a lottery of young pitchers in their system. Jose Mesa. Anthony Telford. Mike Mussina. Arthur Rhodes. Chris Myers. "We're dealing from our strength," Robinson said. Indeed. The chances are high that Harnisch's wins can be replaced, maybe not this year, but soon enough. That stockpile of arms makes the gamble more than worth it.

So in the end, after all the skepticism announced in these and other parts, the Orioles accomplished what they wanted this winter. "I said we needed two quality bats, and we have them," Robinson said. It shows the Orioles are committed to winning in that they know how to fill a hole. But they still haven't had to spend the money that goes with that commitment. That one black cloud won't go away until Davis is signed.

Roland Hemond and Larry Lucchino insisted yesterday that Eli Jacobs supports the deal wholeheartedly. We'll see. This backs Jacobs into a corner. He has to spend big money now. He can't let Davis go. His team has traded for a linchpin, and he can't just erase the move without revealing to all what his priorities are. That it is even an issue is the only reason Orioles fans shouldn't be applauding.

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