LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Orioles are facing another crossroads. They are either on schedule for a meeting with destiny or they are on a collision course with history. The next few months will tell.
General manager Roland Hemond headed off for the winter meetings this weekend hoping to prepare the club for another run at the American League East title, but the prospect of free-agent gridlock -- and the possibility that the club will fall back on the notion that no dramatic improvement is necessary -- leaves room to wonder if the Orioles will repeat the crash of 1990.
You remember 1990. The Orioles were so buoyed by their surprising success during the "Why Not" season of 1989 that they wrongly assumed that the team would mature into a perennial contender. It was not an outlandish thought, not after starter Jeff Ballard won 18 games and reliever Gregg Olson was named American League Rookie of the Year, but it led the team into a two-year funk that finally ended last year.
Though the team claims to be taking an aggressive posture, Hemond sounded a familiar refrain when he met with reporters last week to discuss winter plans.
"We gave the Blue Jays all they could handle," Hemond said. "For 12 weeks, you couldn't put more than a game and a half between us. They had to go out and get David Cone to try and shake us. We have a young team that is going to get better."
That is essentially the mind-set the club had after the '89 season, but the team did not have enough depth to survive a rash of injuries that put the Orioles back in a rebuilding mode. But Hemond doesn't think the situations are comparable.
"For one thing, we didn't have the pitching then that we have now," he said. "We've got a Rick Sutcliffe and a Mike Mussina and a Ben McDonald. I enjoy watching the capabilities of good young players develop. I feel you have to be optimistic."
The Orioles do have a lot to be optimistic about. Sutcliffe has re-signed. Mussina is the real thing. McDonald is making strides. Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux are coming off career years. If everyone does continue to improve, or in some cases just stay the same, the club will be competitive. Still, the Orioles' flat offensive performance in September exposed a run-production gap that needs to be filled if the club is to be a definite contender.
Assistant GM Doug Melvin disputes the notion that the Orioles have to add personnel to avoid being left behind. He isn't saying that the team doesn't want to make improvements, but he isn't ready to concede that the other AL East contenders are going to be better next year.
"You can look at where teams are making improvements, but you can also look at the other side," he said. "The Brewers lost Chris Bosio. The New York Yankees may be bidding on some big free agents, but they have lost Mel Hall and Roberto Kelly. The Blue Jays could lose Dave Winfield and Joe Carter and David Cone. We have been able to avoid those kinds of losses."
Still, the Blue Jays have never been afraid to spend money or make a major trade. It seems logical that they will do what is necessary to keep the club intact and defend their first world championship.