Stay busy, Orioles, and start with Cal

Ken Rosaenthal

November 13, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

For a change, the Orioles didn't simply congratulate themselves on a job well done. It's difficult to say which was more heartening, the signing of Glenn Davis to a two-year contract or the acknowledgment by club officials that it was only a start.

Keeping Davis was an absolute must, but now things get more complicated. The Orioles need at least two starting pitchers. They need to grant Cal Ripken a contract extension by Opening Day. They need to address deficiencies in the outfield and at second base.

It's your basic sixth-place agenda, but the Davis signing indicates the Orioles are finally at a point where they're tackling issues instead of ignoring them. They surely won't fill every hole this off-season, but at least they seem willing to try.

To paraphrase Arsenio Hall:

Let's . . . stay . . . busy!

Club president Larry Lucchino wasted no time yesterday saying the quest for pitching will now replace Davis as the No. 1 priority. Assistant general manager Frank Robinson wasted no time saying the club should attempt to sign Ripken immediately.

The pitching need is clearly more urgent, for Ripken's contract doesn't expire until the end of next season. Still, the club faces almost a moral obligation to reward its best player. Ripken is vital to the franchise's long-term success. The debate over trading Randy Milligan pales by comparison.

Davis has played only 49 games for the Orioles, but he's now under contract for longer than Ripken, who has played 1,638. Not only that, Davis' average salary the next two years will be $3.33 million. Ripken averages $2.1 million in his current deal.

Think that's unfair? Ripken signed for three years plus an option in July 1988, smack in the middle of the collusion era. Technically, his salary didn't result from the owners' conspiracy against the free-agent market. But all contracts at that time were artificially low.

Now Ripken is coming off his finest season, and probably deserves $5 million per year. Lucchino would not discuss the matter, other than to say, "Certainly, Cal is a critical component to the long-term success of the Orioles." Robinson, however, came right out and stated the obvious.

"We should open up a line of communication with Cal," he said. "It doesn't mean the final contract has to be signed before we look into the free-agent market. But you've got to take care of your own before you can go out and think about bringing in someone else."

Ripken, of course, might prefer to wait, given the skyrocketing nature of baseball salaries. In the meantime, the Orioles can try building a respectable team around him. Their next big question is how to acquire pitching -- through trades, free agency or both.

Milligan is an attractive player, but it's doubtful he alone would bring a front-line starter in return. Such pitchers are available, but at a price. The hottest rumors: Kevin Mitchell for Kevin Appier, Ruben Sierra for Chuck Finley, Ellis Burks or Mike Greenwell for Randy Johnson. All big names.

Manager John Oates insisted, "Randy Milligan's not on the block. His name will not be brought up by us. I'd love to have him next year." But in the next breath Oates added, "I don't think there is a player in the game that's untouchable. Therefore, I'm not going to say Randy Milligan isn't."

The Orioles might hesitate to trade Milligan if they had signed Davis to play first base for only one year. But now they can distribute his at-bats to Sam Horn and David Segui -- provided they can swing the right deal. The last thing they need is another Mickey Tettleton-for-Jeff Robinson fiasco.

Milligan, of course, has sensed this coming ever since the Orioles acquired Davis from Houston for three young players last January. His wife, Renee, said he was not taking phone calls yesterday. The Moose's silence spoke volumes. He's normally a stand-up guy.

Still, this isn't fait accompli. Oates admitted it probably will be easier for the Orioles to sign a pitcher than trade for one. GM Roland Hemond is already in contact with representatives of free-agent pitchers. The club is believed to be interested in Kirk McCaskill and Bob Walk, among others.

No one was encouraged when Milwaukee re-signed the immortal Bill Wegman for $9 million over four years on Monday. "It's hard," Lucchino said. "Everyone's looking for pitching. The free-agent market is not full of solid pitching prospects. And the track record for free-agent pitchers is not great."

The Orioles tried to sign lefthander Matt Young last winter, and he was a bust in Boston. They also tried to sign first baseman Franklin Stubbs, and he was a bust in Milwaukee. Free agents can be a blessing (see Minnesota) or a curse. But at this point, the Orioles need to take a shot.

They've got other problems as well -- their second basemen batted only .203 last season, their outfielders combined for only 40 home runs. Signing Glenn Davis was a noble beginning. Congratulations definitely will be in order if the Orioles can succeed with the rest.

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