O's seek Whitaker Is it bye, bye, Billy?

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 17, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Ripken dynasty is crumbling, and the firing of Cal Sr. was only the start. The Orioles haven't simply left Bill Ripken unprotected for today's expansion draft. They've initiated talks with free agent Lou Whitaker to replace him at second base.

So much for family ties.

The Orioles were afraid to touch Bill with big brother Cal unsigned, but now they're facing reality. Yes, Bill is a gifted fielder. Yes, he's a fierce competitor. Yes, a contending team can do better.

Whitaker, a potential Hall of Famer, would represent a major improvement, even though he turns 36 in May. He's not too old, not after batting .278 with 19 homers and 71 RBI this past season. The Orioles signed a pitcher his age last winter, and all he did was win 16 games.

Rick Sutcliffe was precisely what the club needed, a veteran workhorse to stabilize a young staff. Whitaker represents the same type of missing element, a left-handed power hitter at a position the club wants to upgrade.

Nineteen homers by a second baseman.

The last Oriole to do it was Bobby Grich in 1974.

Nineteen homers by a second baseman.

One more than the career totals of Bill Ripken and Mark McLemore combined.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates says Whitaker is among the free agents who intrigue him. Rick Brode, Whitaker's agent, says he already has received a phone call from general manager Roland Hemond confirming the Orioles' interest.

The prospect of signing Whitaker raises about 100 questions: Would it anger Cal Jr.? Can it be done with owner Eli Jacobs trying to sell the Orioles? Is it unrealistic, considering Whitaker has spent his entire 15-year career in Detroit?

Whatever, it seems clear the Orioles finally are prepared to make a decision on Bill. They'd prefer an expansion team do their dirty work, but they don't expect to lose an injury-prone player who hit .230 last season. Ripken is a year away from free agency. His 1992 salary was $685,000.

If anything, McLemore is more likely to be drafted -- he's a switch-hitter with speed who earned $435,000 less than Ripken and outhit him by 16 points. The Orioles probably will have to trade Bill to get rid of him.

And if Cal doesn't like it, too bad.

Nowhere in Cal's $30.5 million contract does it state the club is obligated to employ his father as the third-base coach and his brother as the second baseman. In fact, both probably would have been long gone if their last names weren't Ripken.

The question now is whether the Orioles actually can sign a free agent like Whitaker, or if club officials will spend next spring spouting propaganda about how Bill and McLemore combined for 63 RBI in '92, and wasn't that grand?

Whitaker wants a multi-year deal, and at his age that's a risk. However, he has struck out only 91 times in 912 at-bats the past two seasons, a sign that his reflexes are still good. Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux struck out more in '92 alone.

If this was strictly a baseball decision, the Orioles probably wouldn't hesitate. But it's doubtful Jacobs wants to increase the payroll while he's trying to sell the club.

The payroll already is rising -- seven players (Devereaux, Anderson, Sutcliffe, Cal Ripken, Glenn Davis, Gregg Olson and Ben McDonald) stand to earn a combined $20 million next season. Probably the only way the Orioles can sign a free agent is if they purge other high-salaried players.

It could happen -- Randy Milligan, Sam Horn and Bob Milacki combined to earn nearly $3 million last season, and none is expected back. Still, the Orioles probably can't sign Whitaker and a right fielder -- and they might need the latter if Chito Martinez gets drafted.

The other problem with Whitaker is that he wants to remain in Detroit. "Lou is a very loyal individual," Brode says. "He's been with the organization his entire career. He is flexible, but he'd like to see what the Tigers have to say before he starts talking seriously about someone else."

Brode plans to meet with Tigers management after the draft, and the issue will be length of contract. Whitaker earned $2.2 million in '92. He'd probably accept a similar base salary with the chance to earn more through incentives.

Even if the Orioles signed Whitaker, they could keep Ripken to face left-handers, against whom he's a .270 lifetime hitter. No one knows how Bill would react to a part-time role, but he might not have a choice.

Big brother Cal is signed.

The dynasty is done.

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