Orioles, safe pick for 3rd, could find right combination


April 08, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

OK, whaddya say we jump to the chase, pick the Orioles third and go from there?

Third place seems about right.

Third seems like a nice, cushy, comfortable -- yes, and gutless -- kind of pick. It's the kind of pick where if the Orioles finish first, you can always say you knew they had a chance. And if they finish last, you can say you knew they weren't really much good -- but were just being kind.

Fourth is right in the middle, making it the safest pick, but third has the right ring of optimism to it when it's 80 degrees outside and it's Opening Day.

You want optimism? Watch Glenn Davis in batting practice today. I don't know what he'll do in the game, but he'll crush a few in BP, just to let you know what you're in for. I'm guessing 35-plus home runs, which isn't exactly going out on a limb either. Davis is the first legitimate cleanup hitter in these parts since the days of Ed-die. Glen-nie?

Everything looks possible on Opening Day. Everyone looks good before the first pitch is thrown in anger, including officially antiquated and soon-to-be-abandoned Memorial Stadium. You nTC want some Opening Day irony? As the Orioles begin their last season at 33rd Street, they sign three players -- Dewey, Ernie and Flanny, as they're called -- who were born before the Orioles even played their first game there to help them get through the year. Go figure.

But onto other things. Even though Dan "Fill in Your Own Joke Here" Quayle is throwing out the first pitch and amateur umps are likely to be calling the strikes and balls, there is much reason for excitement -- including the 1,500 recently found tickets for today's game. Unless, of course, you were the poor slob who misplaced them and whose punishment is likely to be swift and terrible. Ask Larry Sheets about that.

Sheets is gone again. Kevin Hickey is gone again. Bob Milacki is gone, at least for a while. Mike Flanagan is back again. Davis, Dewey Evans, Ernie Whitt and Paul Kilgus are back for the first time. Otherwise, the team will look a lot like last year's team, which finished fifth in the American League East, and a lot like the team of the year before, which finished second.

Which team will show up this time? That's why they play the games, but I'm guessing that the Orioles have a significantly better chance of finishing second than fifth. In fact, they'd pretty much have to collapse to finish lower than fourth. And if the starting pitching establishes itself, there's really no reason they won't contend deep into September and maybe even win the division.

Toronto has a whole new team that may or may not be as good the old team, Boston's pitching is shaky, and the AL East remains the AL East, which is to say the division without Oakland and therefore do-able.

What has to go right? Glad you asked. There's some thought that the key to the Orioles is Evans. I don't think so. I don't think any player who has ice packs older than Ben McDonald can be the key to anything. It would be nice if Evans can contribute. If he doesn't, though, there are replacements available. In fact, Leo Gomez, who made the team while hitting .333 this spring, might not be a bad DH.

One key is Davis, who is being asked to produce 30-homer, 100-RBI numbers. Historically, it is not unusual for high-priced players, particularly those who shift leagues, to start slowly. Another is Randy Milligan, who may earn his nickname "Moose" when playing the outfield. The Orioles have rebuilt on defense as much as anything, and Milligan, who has been so cooperative in trying the move from first to left field, has struggled. Of course, if the Orioles don't sign Davis, Moose can move back to first next year.

We should watch Craig Worthington, who had a big spring but who must rebound to the level of play he produced in '89 if he wants to hold off Gomez. Then there's Cal Ripken, who, probably by June, will start hearing about The Streak again, and not the errorless one either. For the Orioles to win the division, Ripken will have to be thought of again as the power hitter who plays shortstop and not the shortstop who hits for power.

Not all of that has to happen, just some of it, which is why the Orioles can feel pretty good about themselves, especially if Mike Devereaux becomes a legitimate leadoff man and Bob Melvin an everyday catcher. The bigger questions come from the pitching staff. Will Ben McDonald emerge as the star pitcher everyone expects him to be? Will Jeff Ballard come back to win 15 games? What's wrong with Milacki? Is Jeff Robinson through? Is Jose Mesa ready? Will Mike Flanagan move up into the rotation? Will always reliable Dave Johnson keep his truck parked?

And what about Gregg Olson? Without an effective Olson, the Orioles can forget about contending. The problem with predicting Olson's future is that there has never been anyone like him. Relievers who begin their careers so young have always faded. They get hurt or they lose their control and sometimes their nerve. Olson appears to be different, except there was the elbow last fall and there's the shoulder now. After Dennis Eckersley, he has been the best relief pitcher in baseball. The Orioles, who have been nursing him all spring, need him to stay that way.

I'm guessing McDonald emerges and Ballard re-emerges and Davis hits a ton, which means that, if Olson is Olson, third might be conservative. So, I'll pick the Orioles third with a bullet. Is that bold enough for you?

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