Orioles shopping with check swings

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 14, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Here are the Orioles, hands tied while awaiting an ownership change, poised to add their second former All-Star in a month. As usual, it's impossible to figure out what's going on with this team.

Has Eli Jacobs developed a sudden affinity for players named Harold? Is he trying to guarantee the club remains competitive if he can't sell? Or is he merely fulfilling the desires of a buyer intent on winning the AL East?

Such are the questions raised by the proposed trade for Harold Baines.

The Orioles are desperate for a left-handed slugger like Baines, but, under Jacobs, their actions haven't always addressed their needs. Baines apparently would cost $1.3 million to $1.5 million. Free-agent second baseman Harold Reynolds cost $1.65 million. These are not inconsequential additions.

Then again, the Orioles celebrated their lucrative inaugural season at Camden Yards by purging 11 players whose 1992 salaries totaled $10.92 million.

Nearly all of those players were eligible for salary arbitration, so those moves could be viewed as part of an industry trend. Still, the Orioles were so aggressive, everything pointed to the sale -- and, by extension, Jacobs.

No question, club officials are operating under severe restrictions -- another owner might have pushed harder to sign free agents like Lou Whitaker, Ruben Sierra and Jimmy Key after drawing 3.5 million last season. But, from club president Larry Lucchino down, the front office is working diligently to field a competitive product, under circumstances beyond its control.

Frankly, the Orioles are at the cutting edge in their approach to the game's changing economics, releasing players they don't want to pay, keeping the ones they do. As long as they find quality replacements -- and Baines certainly would qualify -- it's difficult to argue with what they've done.

They added speedy, switch-hitting Reynolds at a position where they could have stood pat, and now they're close to acquiring Baines and signing him at a bargain rate. Baines, a native of Easton, is so eager to return to the East Coast, he apparently is willing to sign for less than the $1.58 million he earned last season -- even though he's eligible for arbitration.

Selfless? No, pragmatic. Baines might win $3 million from the A's in arbitration, but there's no guarantee he'd ever get it. The A's could release him in spring training and pay only one-sixth of his salary. Baines then would seek other work at a greatly reduced price.

Whatever, we're talking about a steal.

Meanwhile, no one is rushing to sign Bill Ripken, Randy Milligan and Sam Horn, Bob Milacki, Pat Clements or Mike Flanagan. Mark Williamson took a 61 percent pay cut to re-sign for $350,000. Mark McLemore settled for a Triple-A contract that could earn him a 20 percent raise to $300,000 -- if he makes the club.

Indeed, for all the fretting on the talk shows, only three of the Excised 11 have landed with other teams: Craig Lefferts (Texas), Storm Davis (Oakland) and Joe Orsulak (New York Mets). Orsulak took a 50 percent pay cut, and Lefferts' was nearly that great. Davis won't earn in two years with Oakland what he made last season with the Orioles.

Major losses?

Privately, club officials say no.

They see Orsulak as a hitter whose RBI dropped from 57 to 43 to 39 the past three seasons. They see Davis as a reliever who was frequently unavailable because of injuries. And they see Lefferts as a fading 35-year-old left-hander who was overweight.

The Davis argument is the most specious -- the veteran right-hander pitched in 48 games last season, and now he's going to start for the defending AL West champions. Lefferts, meanwhile, is a bargain at $1.1 million. Still, these are not simply bottom-line decisions. They are baseball decisions, influenced by business concerns.

Even with Baines, the Orioles wouldn't be perfect -- not with the unproven David Segui and unreliable Glenn Davis sharing first base, Chito Martinez and Luis Mercedes platooning in right, a cast of thousands competing to be the fifth starter. But, if things broke right, they still could win the division.

All things considered, it would be a remarkable feat.

Club officials were so paralyzed at the winter meetings, they talked trade with only one team. Imagine the frustration for general manager Roland Hemond, who once moved 16 players in 18 hours at the trading convention.

Perhaps now Hemond can take heart.

The one meeting was with Oakland.

Evidently, it wasn't wasted.

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