Without new faces, O's need old bats

JOHN EISENBERG

October 01, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The lesson from this Orioles season is that you can't defy baseball physics. The first two hitters in your order can't carry you to a division title.

Obviously, the Orioles will need more bats with more potency if they are to improve on their third-place finish. You probably already knew that. But do you know whose bats will do the work?

Don't get too excited about a free agent. Larry Lucchino already is talking about maintaining the club's "track record," and you know what that means. The Orioles will never be top-shelf shoppers with Eli Jacobs as owner. They look for "bargains," which means "not quite as good as the players the Blue Jays sign."

Anyway, it won't change, even though the club came so close this year and is estimating a fat profit. With their payroll expected to rise from $20 million to $30 million, it is delusional to expect them even to enter the bidding for a Sierra or Bonds.

If they add a new player, it will be an Andre Dawson, a Tom Brunansky or some other reasonably productive hitter no longer on the top shelf because of age, injuries or, in Brunansky's case, a .259 average and 94 strikeouts accompanying his 14 homers and 72 RBI.

In short, a bargain. Which means that, at the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, the Orioles' new bats will have to include some old bats. Remember when the shortstop used to hit homers?

This should come as no surprise, really. The Orioles are much too cautious to conduct any drastic off-season overhauling. The hitters you saw this year will, for the most part, be the hitters you see next year.

Dawson or Brunansky certainly would help, but neither can carry a team. Neither is a miracle cure. No, if the Orioles are to pass the Jays and Brewers, they will need more from the big bats that went so small this year.

They will need Cal Ripken performing a reasonable imitation of his old self. Same with Glenn Davis and Randy Milligan, if they're both here.

Think about it. What, in the final reckoning, was the Orioles' biggest shortcoming this season? Ripken and Davis, their Nos. 3 and 4 for most of the season, have 23 homers and 110 RBI. The Jays' third and fourth hitters, Joe Carter and Dave Winfield, have 59 homers and 223 RBI through Tuesday. Bingo.

Of course, after this season, it is fair to ask if Ripken and Davis should still even be expected to make major contributions. In Ripken's case, you would certainly hope so; either that or the club just made a $30 million mistake. With Davis, who knows?

Ripken is 30 points, 14 homers and 29 RBI below his career averages. What went wrong? There are only a million theories. You have heard them. He was distracted by his unsigned contract. His elbow and ankle were injured. The league figured him out, feeding him inside pitches that kept him from turning on the ball. He was tired.

What was the truth? I think he was hurt. I think he was distracted. I don't think he was tired. I think he genuinely felt an enormous weight, and, considering the attention he attracted, I don't blame him. I think you will see an improved Cal next year. No, not the Cal who rang up those huge numbers in 1991. But at least 20 homers and 90 RBI. You heard it here first.

Davis, of course, is an even bigger mystery. What could he do to surprise you next year? He could hit five homers or 30. He could play 10 games or 150. There is the possibility that he has lost his power stroke forever, or that, finally healthy, he is ready to recover his 30-homer swing.

This is the only certainty: The Orioles can't count on him for anything. They could trade him, but he doesn't have much value. They could dump him, but what if he came back big? No, the prudent course is to a) expect nothing, b) keep him and hope he is finally healthy and c) make other plans. Which brings us to Milligan.

That he has had his poorest year is obvious. But now this is the question to ask about him: What is he? Is he the power hitter who had 36 homers and 130 RBI combined in 1990 and 1991? Or he is the soft, selective hitter who spent so much of 1992 walking to first? It is doubtful that even Milligan knows the answer.

So, there are a lot of questions. But after a season in which Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux and Chris Hoiles emerged, there also is much with which to work. What about Hoiles batting cleanup? Gomez?

In any case, after this season-killing September slump, something must happen. The club should pry loose some pennies and sign another bat. But even a Dawson batting cleanup is not the entirety of what the Orioles need. Far from it. Any major rehab of the offense must begin with familiar faces, not new ones.

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