Hold noise-makers: Orioles have acquired no reason to party

Ken Rosenthal

December 31, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Not to spoil anyone's fun, but the last thing the Orioles' braintrust should do tonight is toast the acquisitions of Storm Davis and Rick Sutcliffe. If ever a group needed to make New Year's resolutions, this is it. Remove the party hats, gentlemen, and try some thinking caps.

Another year passes, and the Orioles are a mere five or six players away from becoming a contender. Soon they'll move into a new home, but with most of the old furniture. It's not good enough, not even in a modest neighborhood like the AL East.

Once again, Santa Claus didn't drop any presents down the chimney, leaving general manager Roland Hemond to wish upon a star. He won't get one from club owner Eli Jacobs, who has committed an additional $10 million to player salaries the last two

months, with Cal Ripken still unsigned beyond 1992.

Yes, the Orioles are spending more freely than in previous years, but by today's standards they're doing only what they must. Division champion Toronto signed Jack Morris and Dave Winfield, second-place Boston signed Frank Viola. Those are bold strokes, not faint hopes.

The Orioles are correct in refusing to offer long-term contracts to free-agent pitchers, but year after year they engage in a different type of gamble, constructing a house of cards doomed to crumble. This is simply the 1992 version, that's all.

Even after adding Davis and Sutcliffe, they still lack depth in their starting rotation. They need a leadoff hitter, a slugging outfielder, a second baseman and a third catcher. Aside from those minor deficiencies, they're in fine shape for a run at the AL East title.

In a perfect world, the Orioles would suddenly turn creative and sign free-agent outfielder Danny Tartabull to a one-year contract like Kansas City did with Wally Joyner. Or they'd pursue a free-agent middle infielder like Kurt Stillwell or Mike Gallego to play second base.

Further moves are indeed possible, but don't expect anything that dramatic. Assistant GM Doug Melvin conceded yesterday that the club "more than likely" will open with the same outfielders that combined for fewer homers last season than Jose Canseco.

It also appears there will be no change at second base, where Bill Ripken, Juan Bell and Tim Hulett comprised the worst offensive position in baseball. The most likely addition will be a young starting pitcher, an absolute must given the injury histories of Sutcliffe and Ben McDonald.

The braintrust can fantasize, "If Ben wins 20, if Glenn hits 40, if Olson saves 60," but right now this is a fourth-place club. For an idea of how things are going, consider that Brady Anderson, a .219 career hitter, might again figure prominently in the club's plans.

Trading Randy Milligan to Montreal would help matters considerably, especially if he could bring the Orioles two promising young players -- say, lefthander Brian Barnes (5-8, 4.22 at Montreal last season) and outfielder John VanderWal (.293, 15 HRs, 71 RBIs at Triple A).

The Orioles pursued both at the winter meetings, but to no avail. The Expos are now talking about using one of their own players at first base, talking about free agent Alvin Davis, talking about Boston's Mo Vaughn. The fact is, Milligan still makes the most sense.

One thing is certain: The Orioles are intent on landing another starting pitcher, even if they can't trade Milligan. Davis and Sutcliffe fit nicely with McDonald, Bob Milacki and Mike Mussina. But after that, manager John Oates' choices consist of Jose Mesa, Eric Hetzel and Anthony Telford.

"The thing we need to do now is make sure we have enough depth," Melvin said. "You can't be so narrow-minded to think you can go into a season and use only 10 pitchers all year. You've got to protect yourself against injuries and failures."

Now if only the Orioles would apply similar logic to the outfield, where they lack both proven base stealers and power hitters. An infield with Glenn Davis, Cal Ripken and Leo Gomez could

produce 70-80 home runs, but that's a weak rationale for accepting less in the outfield.

As it stands, Mike Devereaux is their only legitimate everyday outfielder. Anderson will compete with Luis Mercedes to bat leadoff and play left. Chito Martinez, Joe Orsulak and David Segui will battle in right. Dwight Evans, 40, will be used mostly as a DH.

Just for misery's sake, compare that group to Kevin Mitchell, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner in Seattle. To Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson and Jose Canseco in Oakland. To Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Howard Johnson with the New York Mets.

The Orioles fall ridiculously short, just as they do at second base, where Bill Ripken is likely to survive, in large part because his older brother remains unsigned. The Mets reportedly were interested in Bill, but signed Willie Randolph instead. Free agency, what a concept.

Happy New Year, Orioles.

But please, no toasts.

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