Bulked-up Orioles try to seize power in AL East

April 04, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

The phone rang and Frank Robinson grumbled. He hates it when the phone rings in the off-season. Never a moment's rest.

But it was general manager Roland Hemond and it was good news this time, better news than Robinson had any right to expect. The Baltimore Orioles had acquired Glenn Davis from the Houston Astros for three young players. The run-production gap that crippled the club in 1990 had been filled. The credibility gap that reopened after the surprising 1989 season had -- in one decisive stroke -- been slammed shut again.

Robinson said he was so excited he had trouble sleeping that night. Finally, opposing pitchers would be staying awake nights, too.

Davis was the second big hitter the Orioles added during the winter, but he was the first real indication that the club was serious about competing for the American League East title. Dwight Evans was a start, but Davis brought the bat the Orioles would need to be there at the finish.

The off-season had brought a change in philosophy for the financially conservative front office, which had banked heavily on its youth movement after the 1989 season. Who could blame the Orioles for thinking things would only get better after the club climbed out of the AL East cellar to take Toronto to the wire?

But youth is unpredictable. Pitchers Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki, who had combined for 32 victories in '89, managed seven last year. Third baseman Craig Worthington, The Sporting News American League Rookie of the Year after his 70-RBI season in 1989, was a classic victim of the mythical sophomore jinx.

The Orioles, so certain of their direction only a few months earlier, were forced to rethink their organizational concept or risk a dismal final season at Memorial Stadium.

The emphasis on player development has not been abandoned, but the youth movement had to be sidetracked temporarily while the club rebuilt its offensive capability. Evans and Davis should add at least 45 home runs and 150 RBI to a power-hungry Orioles lineup, but their effect on the makeup of the club reaches far beyond their individual statistics.

The acquisition of Davis addressed the most glaring deficiency. The fourth spot is the most important run-production source in any major-league lineup, but Orioles cleanup hitters ranked last in the big leagues in virtually every relevant statistical category. Robinson used six different cleanup hitters last year, and they combined to bat .222 with 16 home runs and 78 RBI. They also had the fewest hits and the lowest slugging percentage in baseball.

Davis is coming off a year in which a rib-cage injury kept him from putting up the kind of numbers he has grown accustomed to. He has averaged 29 home runs and 89 RBI in his five full !! seasons in the major leagues -- much of that time spent in a ballpark (the Astrodome) that home run hitters refer to as "Death Valley."

If Davis cannot solve the Orioles' cleanup problem, no one can, but his presence in the lineup also could solve some problems for the team's other big hitters.

Shortstop Cal Ripken has not had this kind of protection since Eddie Murray was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1988 season. Left fielder Randy Milligan, who was displaced at first base by Davis, should benefit, too. It will be much more difficult for opposing pitchers to concentrate on any one hitter, especially when Robinson is able to put Davis, Ripken, Milligan, Evans and Sam Horn into the same lineup.

"I think now when you look at our lineup, there are some people in there who can really scare you," Milligan said. "You can't say, in a tough situation, 'We're going to pitch around a couple of guys and let the other guys try to beat us.'

Evans is something of an unknown quantity. His run-production skills are unquestioned, but his ability to play on a regular basis remains in doubt. He was restricted to a designated hitter role by a lower-back injury last season and has not played a regular-season game in the outfield since August 1989. The Orioles need him in right field to maximize their offense but recognize that he may not be able to spend significant time there.

Milligan appears to have solved his playing-time problem. He has spent the spring working out in left field, where he must prove that he is not a liability to protect his place in the everyday lineup. The outfield experiment, which also included first-base prospect David Segui at the outset, has gone well enough to warrant Milligan's presence in the Opening Day lineup.

Milligan will bat second in the lineup, so Ripken could be surrounded on all sides by outstanding hitters, which would make it nearly impossible for opposing pitchers to work around him this year.

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