O's first in line at the scrap heap

KEN ROSENTHAL

December 19, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles turned into arbitration busters yesterday, and that's their right. But what happens if David Segui can't play? If Glenn Davis spends another season in the whirlpool? If the suddenly thin bullpen is further depleted?

Make no mistake, the club's refusal to offer contracts to five arbitration-eligible players is part of an industry trend. What distinguishes the Orioles is that the front office can't restock accordingly, not with Eli Jacobs seemingly limiting player acquisitions as he tries to sell the club.

That's the rub, just as it has been the entire winter for a team that last season drew 3.5 million. The Orioles promised to be aggressive, and they're fulfilling the vow as only they can. In a span of two months, they've purged 11 players whose 1992 salaries totaled $10.92 million.

Oh, they re-signed Rick Sutcliffe, and they added Harold Reynolds, but someone had to suffer with nearly $10 million committed to Davis and Cal Ripken next season. Randy Milligan, Sam Horn, Mark McLemore, Bob Milacki and Mark Williamson -- this is your life.

Booming attendance or not, you can't argue with the decisions from a business standpoint. The Orioles only stood to lose through arbitration, where player salaries often double and triple, but can't be cut by more than 20 percent.

Milacki ($1.18 million), Milligan ($1.05 million) and Williamson ($900,000) simply made too much money. McLemore ($250,000) and Horn ($687,500) faced uncertain futures with the club.

The Orioles can dictate their own price now that those players are free agents, and they'll probably try to re-sign one or two, most likely McLemore and Williamson. Meanwhile, they're down to four potential arbitrations -- Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux, Ben McDonald and Todd Frohwirth.

To follow the club's logic, just consider what happened to free-agent outfielder Joe Orsulak. The Orioles didn't offer him arbitration, and he wound up accepting a 50 percent salary cut from the New York Mets, signing a one-year deal for $650,000.

All that's fine, but who's left?

Well, there's Doug Jennings, a left-handed-hitting first baseman and outfielder who batted .275 with 14 homers and 76 RBI at Rochester last season. And don't forget Steve Scarsone, who played first, second, third and the outfield in the Arizona Fall League.

Love that versatility.

Love that minimum salary.

Actually, the Orioles plan to scour the ever-growing list of free agents in search of something better. Club president Larry Lucchino said the club even tried to project which players might become available when clubs refused to offer them contracts.

Maybe you caught some of the names that sent pulses racing yesterday at Camden Yards. Mark Carreon. Rod Nichols. Kevin Elster. Todd Benzinger. Jerome Walton. Ellis Burks. The Orioles are adept at sorting through such litter, but will that make them a better team?

Take first base. Lucchino said he's encouraged by the progress Davis has made in New Orleans with Mackie Shilstone, the strength and conditioning coach for heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe. But let's just say manager Johnny Oates isn't preparing for Davis to play 150 games in the field.

Thus, the job now belongs to Segui, with Davis the likely DH. Lucchino gushed that Segui might turn out to be this year's Brady Anderson, but who can plan on such a thing? Lucchino also said he's optimistic Davis will play "most or all of the season." Get me Las Vegas.

To recap Davis' two years with the club:

1991: Injured April 26, plays 49 games.

1992: Injured April 7, plays 106 games.

Granted, Milligan is coming off an abysmal season, but two years ago he drove in 70 runs. At the very least, the Orioles could take him to spring training, then decide. Instead, they're talking about Chito Martinez, Leo Gomez and Chris Hoiles as options at first.

Here's a team that not long ago was overloaded with first basemen; now it faces a potential shortage. Here's a team that last season drew strength from its bullpen; now it's one injury away from a major problem.

The losses of Storm Davis and Williamson leave the club with a bullpen consisting of Frohwirth, Alan Mills, Jim Poole, Brad Pennington and Gregg Olson. Not bad, but Poole was injured nearly all of last season, and Pennington is a rookie who might need more seasoning.

Cost-cutting first, competition second -- that's the state of the game, circa 1993. For the Orioles, what happened yesterday isn't the scary part. Under Jacobs, the question is always, how far will they go?

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