CLEVELAND -- The 1992 season went much better than expected for the Orioles, but their third-place finish does not leave them much room to sit back and revel in past glory.
Third place does not provide enough laurels for even a day's rest, so club officials will be back at work today formulating their plans for the winter and beyond.
"The off-season is going to be about 12 hours long," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said recently, and he apparently meant every word of it.
He has scheduled extensive organizational meetings for today and tomorrow, no doubt hoping to get an early jump on the club's off-season improvement program. No one wants this to be a temporary turnaround like the "Why Not?" season of 1989.
Manager Johnny Oates spent part of the weekend putting together a presentation for Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond, but Oates has declined to reveal his wish list until after the two days of meetings.
"We want to get together while the season is still fresh in everyone's minds," Lucchino said. "We're going to sit down and discuss everything -- what we did right and what we did wrong."
Then they will have to discuss what to do next. The Orioles opened their new stadium in style, winning 10 of their first 11 home games to jump into the thick of the American League East race. No one could have expected that they would still be in contention in mid-September, but the final weeks of the season exposed them as something less than a championship team.
When their title hopes were on the line, the offense was on the fritz. The Orioles went 21 consecutive games without scoring more than four runs. The heart of the lineup -- Cal Ripken, Glenn Davis and Randy Milligan -- never really was assertive enough for the club to take down a team the caliber of the Toronto Blue Jays.
There were a handful of pleasant developments. Brady Anderson turned in an all-around offensive performance out of the leadoff spot that is unmatched in American League history. No AL leadoff hitter had hit more than 20 homers, stolen more than 50 bases and driven in
more than 75 runs in a single season. Mike Devereaux had an MVP-caliber season, with 24 home runs and 107 RBI. Chris Hoiles hit 20 home runs despite a wrist fracture that cost him more than two months of the season.
The trouble is, as much as the Orioles would like to take those numbers for granted next season, they cannot assume that the offensive lineup will improve enough to take another step in the right direction.
The potential certainly is there. If Ripken and Davis had turned in even average performances this year, the Orioles might not be going home empty-handed today. If Leo Gomez and Milligan had continued to develop, the offensive lineup would have been far more formidable than the one that slipped into such a slumber in September.
There are no easy answers, especially in the uncertain environment created by the Nov. 17 expansion draft, which will stock the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. The
Orioles need to solidify their offensive lineup. That much is obvious. But the simplest way to do so is also the least likely.
Lucchino said last week that the club would not "radically change our approach to free agency," which means that Barry Bonds and Kirby Puckett need not apply. The club has been known to make modest forays into the free-agent arena -- as evidenced by last year's acquisition of Rick Sutcliffe -- but there do not figure to be many 90-RBI threats willing to sign for one year at $1.2 million.
The Orioles reportedly made a couple of bids to acquire outfielder Andre Dawson from the Chicago Cubs this year. He'll be available as a free agent, but he won't come that cheap. Ruben Sierra would be the perfect acquisition, but he will fall in the same price range as Bonds and Puckett.
The front office will have enough trouble deciding whether to re-sign outfielder Joe Orsulak, the only Orioles position player who is eligible to file for free agency at the end of the year. Orsulak made $1.3 million to play a part-time outfield role, so it is conceivable that the club will look for some other way to spend that money, but that would not make sense if there are no solid plans to find another run-producing outfielder.
This wouldn't be a problem if the club could be certain that Davis will be healthy and productive next year, but his track record over the past two seasons makes that a poor gamble. He once was considered a franchise player who could carry a team all by himself, but the Orioles would be satisfied with a workmanlike performance that fills one of the holes in the middle of the lineup.