Two years ago the Atlanta Braves wished they were the Orioles. Now the Orioles wish they were the Braves.
That's how quickly things change today in baseball, where thdevelopment of young stars, combined with the right free-agent signings, can result in dramatic improvement almost overnight.
The Minnesota Twins are on the verge of completing the historiworst-to-first turnaround that the Orioles nearly accomplished in 1989. If there's any justice (Dave and otherwise), the Braves will do the same.
They've averaged a whopping 96 losses the past six seasonsbut after beating San Diego 5-1 last night, they continue to lead Los Angeles in the NL West by one-half game. They host the Dodgers this weekend, and the series is sold out.
Not bad, considering the Braves were the only team in the majors not to exceed 1 million in attendance last year. Not bad, considering the repeated setbacks they experienced while waiting for their young pitching staff to mature.
The Orioles are at that stage now, figuring Ben McDonald, MikMussina and Arthur Rhodes might one day equal Atlanta's Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz. Yet for all the similarities between the clubs, the differences are far more revealing.
First, the Braves feature two homegrown slugging outfielders, Dave Justice and Ron Gant. The Orioles haven't produced one (( since Don Baylor. Their most promising hitter is third baseman Leo Gomez. He won't match the 28 homers Justice hit as a rookie last year, and he will never steal 30 bases like Gant.
Second, the Braves spent $20.7 million on five free agents last winter. The sum is $6 million more than the Orioles' Opening Day payroll. It bought Atlanta three-fourths of an infield (Terry Pendleton, Rafael Belliard, Sid Bream), a quality reliever (Juan Berenguer) and a veteran catcher (Mike Heath).
Granted, CNN magnate Ted Turner has more money to burthan Orioles owner Eli Jacobs, but the Braves' first-year general manager, Baltimore native John Schuerholz, spent wisely. The same can be said of Minnesota's Andy MacPhail, who signed veterans Jack Morris and Chili Davis as additions to his own youthful mix.
Today Orioles assistant GM Doug Melvin says, "Those are thtwo clubs that made the right choices." The Orioles, remember, pursued Boston lefthander Matt Young (3-5, 5.01) and Milwaukee first baseman Franklin Stubbs (.213, 11 HRs, 38 RBIs) before trading for Glenn Davis and signing him for one year.
Here's the irony: Schuerholz, a leading candidate for Executive of the Year, says, "I used the Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates of several years ago as my internal models. You can build competitive contending clubs with young players. It's obvious, though, that we needed some veterans to supplement the young players we had."
In other words, the Braves didn't fool themselves by trying tcompete solely with the Glavines and the Gants. The Orioles made that mistake after 1989, but to be fair, Schuerholz inherited a far more troubled club. He started tinkering immediately upon arriving from Kansas City, and hasn't stopped yet.
After failing to sign free agent Brett Butler as his leadoff man, he traded in April for Otis Nixon, who leads the majors with 70 stolen bases. He then acquired pitcher Jim Clancy before the July 31 trading deadline, and reliever Alejandro Pena before postseason rosters closed on Aug. 31.
Schuerholz completed those three deals without losing a singlplayer from his Opening Day roster. He might have taken a less frenetic approach, but the Braves suffered a series of major injuries, including the losses of Heath (elbow, July 13) and setup man Marvin Freeman (back, Aug. 18) for the rest of the season.
Bream and Justice missed nearly two months after getting hurt on consecutive days in late June. Just before they returned, the Braves lost three pitchers in 10 days, including Freeman. Kent Mercker, of course, is back; he started the combined no-
hitter against San Diego. But Berenguer, the club leader with 17 saves, has been out with a back problem since Aug. 13.
Fortunately, Pena has four saves since joining the club, and thtop four starters continue to pitch well. Glavine, the NL leader with 18 wins and a 2.32 ERA, already has worked more than 200 innings. Avery (15-8), Smoltz (12-13) and veteran Charlie Leibrandt (15-11) might also exceed that total.
Meanwhile, MVP candidate Pendleton is playing his usual solidefense at third base while batting .315 with 20 homers and 77 RBIs. Gant is working on his second straight 30-30 season in homers and steals. And midseason callup Brian Hunter has 12 homers and 45 RBIs a year after playing mostly at Double A.
No one could have imagined this. Glavine was 7-17 in '88, Avery 3-11 last year. Gant returned to Class A in '89 to learn the outfield and regain his batting stroke. The Braves stuck with those players and others. Schuerholz, the guy who once traded David Cone for Ed Hearn, kept the faith upon taking over, resisting all trade offers.
"One of the lessons I learned in Kansas City is that young talenis a more valuable and sensitive asset than it appears on the surface," he says. "There's nothing worse than seeing your players blossom in another team's uniform, especially if your club doesn't reach the pinnacle of success."
The Orioles know all about that after trading for Glenn Davis, but that's another story. The Braves' sudden rise is instructive for any team developing young talent. If they choose, the Orioles can simply follow the Atlanta textbook. Provided, of course, they're willing to learn.