Sabo has bat, glove will O's make play?

JOHN EISENBERG

July 24, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

MINNEAPOLIS -- It is a baseball dilemma that could pass for an Abbott and Costello routine.

"Who's on third?"

"Hulett."

"Is that enough?"

"No, I said that's Hulett."

Ha. But the question is legit. Is Tim Hulett, backup extraordinaire, sufficient at third for a team trying to win a division?

The Orioles are trying to answer that as they sift through trade possibilities and wait fearfully for the annual mega-move by Toronto's Pat Gillick. (This year, Stan Musial?)

For the Orioles, there are two questions to answer. Do they need to make a trade at all? If so, do they add a pitcher or a hitter?

Tough calls, both. The Orioles certainly don't have a crying need, as did the impotent Braves. But the more you weigh the possibilities, the more you keep coming back around to third.

Hulett is the man there for the foreseeable future with Leo Gomez having undergone wrist surgery and the Mark McLemore experiment officially over. "You'll see Timmy there every day," manager Johnny Oates said. "And I'm comfortable with that."

A manager has to say that, but Oates isn't bluffing. What is Hulett if not the embodiment of comfort? He is a steady bat and a reasonable glove, ready and able no matter how long he sits. That's an invaluable piece of the puzzle.

But the truth is that Hulett's move into the everyday lineup creates two holes. One is the absence of a dependable infield backup on the bench. The other is at third, where Hulett is a short-term solution.

That's not meant to denigrate, not at all. Hulett has been exceptional in the week he has had the job. But, let's face it, there are reasons why he has been a backup for most of his career.

The question is whether the Orioles can do better. And the answer is yes.

The Reds' Chris Sabo, whose name has come up in trade talks, would be a helpful addition at third. He is hitting .285 this year with 10 homers and 51 RBI. He is a former All-Star who still produces. His glove is fine.

It's axiomatic that you can never have enough pitching, but these Orioles will end up with a more pressing need for the extra bat Sabo would represent.

Their rotation looks pretty strong if you buy into the theory that Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela are for real -- the evidence is piling up -- and Arthur Rhodes is an extra arm waiting in Rochester. If Rick Sutcliffe comes back from his July slump, as he did a year ago, that's enough pitching to contend.

Sure, if there was the possibility of adding a top gun such as the Padres' Andy Benes, it becomes a no-brainer. If you can add an ace like that, you don't think logically, you just find a place for him. (See: Cone, David, World Series champ, 1992.)

But Benes probably won't be available. And the other pitchers mentioned as available, from Dennis Martinez to Tim Belcher, wouldn't have the same everyday impact as Sabo.

The issue comes down to one question: Where are the Orioles most vulnerable? The evidence points to their bats.

Remember last year, when their bats died in September along with their postseason hopes. And remember earlier this year, when a lack of hitting almost ended the season by Memorial Day. (Yeah, the pitching stunk, too, but the hitting was worse. You can look it up.)

The mistake is to make this any more complicated than it is. The Orioles are third in the league in pitching and 11th in hitting. Enough said.

When these Orioles go bad, it is their bats that vanish the fastest. Sabo's consistency could be, well, comforting.

The price would be a prospect, maybe two, but, according to the grapevine, not front-liners. And yes, Sabo would be a free agent after the season. But Gomez was slumping miserably before his injury. He had lost his job. There is no guarantee he'll return to form. It's possible that the Orioles don't have a third baseman. They could do worse than Sabo.

Of course, no matter whom the Orioles add, if they do add anyone, what's most important is that he contribute. That may sound obvious, but the club's last two pennant-drive additions, Keith Moreland and Craig Lefferts, have been about as helpful as a Blue Jay home run.

An addition could be particularly important this year, too, with the division race headed for August in a five-deep heap that looks pretty much even. You know Toronto is going to shoot high, as always. The Blue Jays will get the starting pitcher they need. The Orioles' season could depend on whether they also do the right thing.

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