With ailing youth, Orioles face future shock Olson, Hammonds status may alter moves for '94

October 03, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

There was a time not so long ago that the Orioles organization seemed quite comfortable with -- and maybe even a little cocky about -- the youthful nucleus of the club. But as the 1993 season comes to a close, such hubris is in short supply.

The future that seemed so bright when the Orioles opened spring training seven months ago is clouded with uncertainty. Reliever Gregg Olson faces the possibility of career-threatening elbow surgery. Top outfield prospect Jeffrey Hammonds has a bulging disk in his neck that could force him into a similarly difficult medical decision. Pitching ace Mike Mussina will finish the season on the sidelines with a sore shoulder.

Not exactly a happy ending.

Those three players constitute the core of a youth movement that was supposed to turn the corner this year, but they have left the club in a quandary as the new ownership group prepares to take over the operation of the front office this week.

If all three were certain to be healthy for the 1994 season, it would be relatively simple to chart the direction the club might take in its off-season maneuverings. But their guarded status -- particularly in the cases of Olson and Hammonds -- has created too many variables to make an accurate prediction of what might happen during the next few months.

Should the Orioles play it safe and sign a new closer? That might be prudent, but it would suck up money the team might be able to spend on a front-line run-producer. Can the front office afford to gamble on Hammonds and stick with the outfielders on the roster? That approach might work, but it also could leave the Orioles no better off after another season in which the divisional talent gap was too wide to bridge.

It's no longer a simple matter of adding a 100-RBI player and a quality starting pitcher as it might have been if everything else were in place.

"The number of decisions we're going to have to make has expanded," manager Johnny Oates said. "We can't go out and try to make a couple of moves without adding the possibility of not having Olson and Hammonds. That has to be part of the equation. You have to make plans as if they might not be here."

Of course, Oates and the rest of the front-office staff might not even be here. No one can say for certain what new majority owner Peter Angelos will do when he takes control of the club this week, but whoever makes the personnel decisions this winter will be faced with the same dilemma.

The assume-the-worst approach has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, who have made a habit of making improvements even when the club seemed good enough to win as constituted. The Orioles generally have taken the optimistic approach, basing their pennant hopes on a best-case scenario of top-level performance and swift player development. It looked as if that was going to work this year, until a string of injuries exposed a lack of depth.

"I think people took a lot for granted, and it just didn't happen this year," Mussina said. "A pleasant surprise is always nice once in a while. Look at Philadelphia."

The Philadelphia Phillies, of course, had everything go right this season and will open the National League Championship Series on Wednesday at Veterans Stadium. The last time they appeared in the playoffs (1983), they ended up in the World Series against Baltimore, but the opportunity for a 10-year reunion evaporated on the 3-6 September road trip that took the Orioles out of contention.

A lot of ifs

That might not be so frustrating if this club could look at 1993 as the next-to-last stop on the road back to the top of the standings, but there is no way to be sure of that. Even Mussina, who seems confident he will be able to put his physical problems behind him by Opening Day, knows there are no guarantees.

"People will be going into next year thinking, 'Is Mike going to be all right? Is Gregg going to be all right?' " he said. "There will be a lot of ifs -- a lot more than normal."

General manager Roland Hemond is a career optimist, so he continues to hold onto the hope that some uncertainty will be cleared up before the front office has to grapple with major personnel decisions.

"We may have some indication of their progress early enough in the off-season that we don't have to be looking for the worst," Hemond said. "You can't be sure about anything in life. There are players without problems now who may develop them in spring training. We'll wait. In the next couple of weeks, we may get some more information."

Mussina's situation is less troubling than the others. He was hampered this year by upper-back soreness and biceps tendinitis. The back pain is gone and the shoulder soreness is expected to respond to four months of rest and rehabilitation.

Of course, there was a time when the outlook for Olson and Hammonds seemed less troubling than it is today, but Mussina says he feels confident he won't be next in line.

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