Minus Olson, O's closer to collapse

KEN ROSENTHAL

September 30, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles already need to add a proven 100-RBI man and at least one starting pitcher. A team can plug only so many holes in a single off-season. If Gregg Olson is lost for 1994, the possibilities are almost too frightening to consider.

Maybe now fans will understand how lucky the Orioles were to land Olson with the fourth pick of the '88 draft. Suddenly, the team is in an awful quandary. Replacing Olson would be nearly impossible. But keeping him would be no bargain, either.

It's difficult to imagine a club risking the loss of its all-time saves leader just after he turns 27. But that's the worst-case scenario for the Orioles with Olson a candidate for career-threatening elbow surgery.

The deadline for tendering contracts is Dec. 20. The problem is, the Orioles might not know any more about Olson's status than they do now. Indeed, the issue is so complex, the club's decision might not be any easier even if Olson underwent the Tommy John surgery tomorrow.

Without Olson for 1994, the Orioles almost certainly would need to add a reliever -- most likely a closer, but possibly a middle-inning specialist to set up the inexperienced left-right tandem of Brad Pennington and Alan Mills for the late innings.

Let's say the Orioles signed a free agent such as Jeff Reardon for $2 million. Under the maximum 20 percent pay cut, the least they could pay Olson would be $1.84 million. That's almost $4 million for a closer who would be a gamble at any price and another who might never pitch again.

Peter Angelos would love that.

Actually, the figure probably is low, because Olson would never accept a cut. Why should he? He's eligible for salary arbitration, where his salary would be determined by his performance the past two seasons, not his uncertain future.

Thus, the Orioles' only way out might be to "non-tender" Olson, just as they did last season with all but their top arbitration-eligible players. Olson would then be free to sign with another club -- assuming someone would risk a contract on a pitcher who might miss the season.

You know what the outcome would be: The Blue Jays would sign Olson for some ridiculous sum, wait patiently for him to rehabilitate, then trade closer Duane Ward in '94 for the superstar they need to crush the Orioles' bones.

It better not happen, and it never would, at least according to one club official. "He's a very valuable guy," the club official said. "We're not going to let him walk away, particularly with this degree of medical uncertainty."

If that's the case, the Orioles would have to turn creative, and offer Olson an incentive-laden contract reflecting every variable. Even then, Olson might play hardball. Baltimore fans don't always treat him kindly. Neither does Orioles manager Johnny Oates.

Put it all together, and the Orioles have no choice but to consider life without Olson. They've been kicking around ideas since learning last month that surgery was a possibility. The discussions surely will intensify during three days of organization meetings starting today.

The Orioles were planning to revamp their bullpen anyway. It's doubtful Mark Williamson will return, and with a $900,000 salary, Todd Frohwirth is a prime candidate to be non-tendered. As the club has discovered, using Mills as a closer leaves a gaping hole in middle-inning relief.

And what about Mills as a closer? He's 3-1 with three saves and a 1.16 ERA since Aug. 9, the date the Orioles lost Olson. But no one knows if he can sustain that kind of excellence -- or how he'd react to an inevitable slump.

Pennington is an even bigger question. Yes, almost every club pursued him in trade talks this season, but that doesn't mean he's ready to be a closer. The Orioles demoted him for a month starting Aug. 11. Now, they want him to play winter ball.

The extra work might do wonders -- Pennington will pitch the first half of the winter season, then rest for spring training. Still, few young closers are successful. Olson was an absolute rarity, the only pitcher to earn 20 saves in each of his first five major-league seasons.

Maybe the Orioles can develop another closer -- Armando Benitez posted incredible numbers at Single-A this season, and No. 1 draft pick Jay Powell always could return to the role he had at Mississippi State.

But Mills, Pennington, Benitez, Powell -- they're all unknowns. This was a team that was a half-game out of first place on Sept. 9, a team that had its nucleus securely in place. You take away Olson, you take away part of the foundation. And maybe the whole thing comes crumbling down.

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