Division vision: Orioles look to rise in AL East Deeper team likely to contend again with champion Blue Jays

April 04, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Forget about March Madness and the Final Four. There is only one topic of sports discussion in Baltimore this weekend.

Actually, it started sometime between New Year's Day and the Super Bowl and gained intensity after the last snowfall. It used to be that the baseball season didn't start around here until the schools closed for summer break, but not anymore.

Baseball at Camden Yards is the hottest ticket in town, and since spring training started, there has been one question: What will it take for the Orioles to win the American League's East title this year?

The team that won 89 games last year has added speed (Harold Reynolds), left-handed pop (Harold Baines) and a veteran pitcher (Fernando Valenzuela) without breaking the bank or breaking up last year's nucleus.

Better yet, the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays have lost Dave Winfield, Candy Maldonado, Manuel Lee, Kelly Gruber, David Cone, Jimmy Key and Tom Henke.

The second-place Milwaukee Brewers lost Chris Bosio and Paul Molitor.

But before you start saving for postseason tickets, remember: An awful lot still has to go right for the Orioles to win the AL East for the first time since 1983. A checklist follows:

The young starters

It all begins with pitching, and for the Orioles that centers on their three young starters -- Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes. They combined with Rick Sutcliffe to form a solid rotation the second half of last year when Rhodes, 23, entered the picture.

Having the young left-hander pick up where he left off last season (7-5, 3.63 ERA) is an important part of the equation. McDonald figures to improve on last year's record (13-13, 4.24).

That should offset any drop-off by Mussina, who might win more games, but can't be expected to improve his overall numbers (18-5, 2.54). Sutcliffe supplies leadership, but he's only the staff's fourth-best starter. A duplication of last year (16-15, 4.47) probably would satisfy everybody but him, but ideally he should be a few more games over .500.

If the Orioles break even in the No. 5 slot, they'll be better off than nearly every team in baseball. The key is the continued improvement of the three young starters.

Brady and Devo

Brady Anderson doesn't have to hit 21 home runs or drive in 80 runs, and Mike Devereaux can't be expected to duplicate his 107 RBI. But the success of this duo at the top of the lineup was instrumental in the Orioles' success last year.

What has to happen here is for both to approximate reasonably what they did a year ago.

PTC For Devereaux, last year was a continuation of the steady improvement he has shown since joining the team in 1989. But there was nothing in Anderson's record that suggested the numbers he would put up in 1992.

The left fielder always has been regarded as a potential front-line performer, but not until last year did he deliver on that promise. A normal drop-off for these two should be expected, but can be offset by . . .

Ripken-Davis-Baines

Some would argue that Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis should top any list of what has to happen for the Orioles to win. But the club made a strong bid last year without significant offensive contributions from either.

And Ripken's average also suffered in 1989, when teams were content to take their chances with less proven talent and tried to work around the All-Star shortstop in the lineup.

Normal run production from Ripken and Davis would put the Orioles in a good position. The presence of Baines provides the left-handed hitter missing from the middle of the batting order last year.

Like Anderson, Devereaux, Ripken and Davis, Baines does not have to supply a career year. Something close to last year (16 home runs, 76 RBI) should suffice.

The Orioles have gone into each of the past two seasons expecting big things from Davis, but injuries shut him down. Now the expectations aren't as high, but the numbers Davis put up in the National League were not an accident. Now, the Orioles only need a reasonable year from Davis -- including playing first base on a regular basis, enabling Baines to get most of his at-bats at designated hitter.

Good health

This is particularly important for the pitching staff. But catcher Chris Hoiles, who has 25-plus home run potential, and Leo Gomez also figure prominently here.

Hoiles (.274, 20, 40) missed 66 games last year, most because of a broken wrist. Gomez (.265, 17, 64) has had shoulder problems. If they can play regularly, Hoiles and Gomez are capable of doing for the bottom of the lineup what Anderson and Devereaux did for the top last year.

Right field

Coming out of spring training, this is still the most unsettled position. It would be nice if the Orioles could get some power out of the right-field spot, but respectable numbers will do.

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