Orioles have new start, old doubts

February 16, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Baltimore Orioles are getting ready to begin anew, and why not? They have a new stadium, a new spring training address, three new coaches, a couple of new starting pitchers and a new preseason program devised by their nearly new manager.

If only they could be sure that 1992 will not be the same old `` story.

When the pitchers and catchers open workouts at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla., on Friday, there will be plenty of new faces, but there also will be plenty of room to wonder if the Orioles did enough during the off-season to rebound from a pair of very discouraging seasons.

The defending division champion Toronto Blue Jays did not stand still. They added World Series MVP Jack Morris to a pitching staff that was one of the best in the business. The Boston Red Sox signed left-hander Frank Viola to complement a starting rotation that included 1991 Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. The sixth-place Orioles made some big pitching moves, too, but they appear to have lost ground to the top two teams in the American League East.

Looks can be deceiving, of course. So can preseason optimism. The arrival of veteran pitchers Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis is no guarantee that the starting rotation will knit together and carry the club back into contention, though that seems far more likely today than it did in October.

The Orioles fell behind by three runs or more in the first three innings on 43 occasions last year. How can the rotation not be improved?

"We'll be going to spring training with some ifs," said manager John Oates, who will be presiding over spring training for the first time, "but I don't think there are as many as there were last year."

True enough, first baseman Glenn Davis appears to have made a full recovery from the freak neck injury he suffered last spring. Cal Ripken is coming off the season of his life and has every reason to believe 1992 will be just like it. Right-hander Ben McDonald seems to be healthy. Relief pitchers Todd Frohwirth and Jim Poole have proven they can get out major-league hitters. Third baseman Leo Gomez has proven he can produce at the plate and hold his own with a glove.

Still, the "if factor" figures to weigh heavily on the Orioles' chances for a recovery in 1992. Here are a few examples:

* If Sutcliffe and Storm Davis can re-establish themselves as front-line starting pitchers, the Orioles should re-establish themselves as a pitching-oriented team. If not, the starting rotation could become a major problem again.

* If McDonald can remain healthy and productive from start to finish, the club's youthful nucleus has a chance to lift the Orioles back into contention. If not, the club's player development department will have some soul-searching to do.

* If Glenn Davis can deliver the power stats that convinced the club to trade three top prospects for him in 1991, the Orioles should have enough run-production potential to be very competitive. If not, Ripken will be on his own again, not that that presented much of a problem for him last year.

* If Luis Mercedes or Rule V draftee Darrell Sherman wins a place at the top of the batting order, the Orioles should be able to put together a balanced lineup. If not, Mike Devereaux will have to remain in the leadoff spot, though his 1991 run-production numbers indicate he might be more valuable as a No. 6 hitter.

* If the Orioles can get a decent arm in exchange for surplus first baseman Randy Milligan, they should be able to take some of the guesswork out of the pitching situation. If not, the crowded designated hitter situation could be counterproductive.

If -- there's that word again -- the uncertainty of it all is disconcerting, Oates is not letting on. He took over the club in the midst of a disastrous 1991 season. Now, he will get a chance to start fresh, with no one to blame but himself for the preparation of the team.

"I'm excited," he said. "This is the time of year when everybody is excited. The only time you're more excited is in October if you're in the World Series."

The Orioles would have to be considered a prohibitive long shot to feel that kind of excitement again this year. The division race appears to be stacked heavily against them, though it is difficult to separate the five teams that figure to be looking up at the Blue Jays and Red Sox.

Improvement appears inevitable, partly because it would be difficult to imagine things getting any worse than they were in 1991. Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The Orioles' "Season to Remember" quickly became a season to forget for all but a few standouts. The starting rotation collapsed. Glenn Davis missed 105 games with a neck injury so rare that some of the doctors he visited had never treated anything like it before. Bill Ripken went from being the club's leading hitter in 1990 (.291) to a .216, 11-RBI performance last year, when he was hampered by injuries. The list goes on and on.

There is historical and statistical precedent for a dramatic turnaround. The Orioles led the league with 35 one-run losses last season. Of the 21 other teams that have suffered as many one-run defeats over the past 25 years, 17 have shown improvement the next season -- by an average of 11 games.

"I don't know if that works out or not," Oates said, "but it shows us that it doesn't take much to get over the top when you're that close. Knowing that we were in that many games is very encouraging to me."

Oates intends to take the exhibition season very seriously. He wants the Orioles to get into the habit of winning those close games. He wants them to get into the habit of winning, period. He has always been obsessive about preparation, and that undoubtedly will be reflected in his team's training regimen.

Spring is almost here. The sparkling new Oriole Park at Camden Yards is almost ready. The stage will be set for a new beginning, and the Orioles hope to be up to it.

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