Orioles in position to make their move

JOHN EISENBERG

August 27, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles will leave for the West Coast today having blown a big chance to pass the Blue Jays in the standings. But it does not even matter.

The Jays completed their longest road trip of the season with a 5-7 record after beating the White Sox last night. Had the Orioles not lost five games to the low-end Mariners, Royals and Angels, they would be in first place today.

But it just does not matter. The fact is that the Jays are wobbling and the Orioles are still easily close enough to catch them with 35 games left. The division is there for either team, or the Brewers, to take.

It could go to the one who makes the right move. The right trade.

Maybe adding a starting pitcher capable of handling a half-dozen big-stress starts. Or a hitter potent enough to deliver a couple of games.

Sure, there is the chance it would make no difference. Such moves tend not to help more than they do -- let's just say "Keith Moreland" and leave it at that. But how will these Oriole know unless they try?

The front office needs to act with the understanding that contending seasons do not just come along all the time. And one does not guarantee another the next year. Or the next.

Perhaps the Orioles are complacent on this issue because of their stable of strong young arms, but that is the wrong pose. Even the most beautiful blueprints can get rubbed out, and often do.

You have to do everything possible when fortunate enough to wake up in August in contention. You never know when you might be back. Maybe it is true the Jays will win anyway if they start playing up to potential, but would you bet on that?

Regardless, that the Orioles need to make a move is obvious. They are playing .500 ball since mid-May, and no matter how low the Jays go, .500 will not win the title. Simply, the Orioles need more than they have.

Of course, making a deal this late is never easy. Players must clear waivers because the trading deadline has passed. Other teams can block deals. It is not an easy trick. But it gets done every year.

Ideally, the Orioles would find a way to add a starting pitcher. Cal Ripken's slump has placed emphasis on the hole in the middle of the order, and that is a problem, but the club is fifth in the league in runs, second in on-base percentage and fourth in batting. Hitting will not win or lose this title for the Orioles. But pitching will. Starting pitching.

The Orioles appeared to have an advantage when they matched up with the Jays in Toronto a couple of weeks ago. Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes were winning, Alan Mills was fitting in as the fifth starter and the Jays were so empty they needed a big-game win from untested rookie Doug Linton.

The Jays are still getting hammered, although Jack Morris is coming up big now that the games mean more. But what about the Orioles? Rhodes has flattened out. He belongs in Rochester, but it is too late now. McDonald is back to throwing first-rate stuff and getting hit hard. Mike Mussina has dropped a notch since the All-Star break. Mills is back in the bullpen.

Rick Sutcliffe has re-emerged as the No. 1 starter since his apocalyptic July, but right now Mussina is the only other starter who can be counted on to come up big. Two is not enough.

The other 25 teams are not lacking for pitchers who might help, but none would be cheap, which means there is the likelihood the Orioles will pass. But why are they even playing if they aren't doing everything possible to win?

Even with $30.5 million now outbound to Ripken, they still have more than enough in the bank. That doesn't mean they should just make a move for the sake of it. If they're going to add a pitcher, it should be someone of measurable quality. Greg Maddux would be terrific. Why not shoot high? Mike Boddicker? I guess. Frank Tanana -- why?

And even if they can't add a pitcher, why not a hitter such as Tom Brunansky? They do need more hitting, too.

The hardest part would be giving up the prospect it usually takes to get such a deal done. I am against giving up prospects because you always need three times as many as you think. But there are times to forget those rules. This is one.

In July 1987 the Tigers gave up a prospect to get Doyle Alexander from the Braves. Alexander pitched the Tigers to a division title. The prospect was John Smoltz, who turned out to be one of the best pitchers of his generation. But you can be sure the Tigers would make the same trade again. Most teams just aren't in position to win a title that often.

Incidentally, the Blue Jays were the team that the Tigers caught and passed down the stretch that year. It could happen again. That's could, mind you.

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