'94 O's top 10 list isn't joking matter

JOHN EISENBERG

October 04, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

This time, the last out of the Orioles' season was more than just a meaningless footnote. This time, it was the boundary between two eras in the franchise's history.

When Cal Ripken bounced to the Blue Jays' Mike Timlin yesterday at Camden Yards to end the '93 season -- not a moment too soon -- the Orioles of Eli Jacobs were officially dead and gone. Peter Angelos takes over ownership today.

It'll be five months before we see Angelos' Orioles in uniform, of course, but in those months a handful of big decisions must be made, decisions that will do much to determine whether the club can surpass the 80-something win barrier on which it is stuck.

Being a hometowner, Angelos is not going to lack for "helpful" voices in his ear. So, here's one more: A 10-step plan for improving the Orioles:

* 1. Bring back the manager. Johnny Oates is a solid tactician who knows how to prepare a team. He helped keep the club in contention this year despite injuries and inconsistent play. He must learn not to get so depressed when the team is losing -- that affects the players -- but it's a terrible reach to suggest he mismanaged this club out of the playoffs. He is a good manager who should get better.

* 2. Find a No. 3 starter. This should be the chief off-season goal, even ahead of adding a big bat. No one knows what's going to happen with Gregg Olson or Jeffrey Hammonds, whose injuries have opened even more potential holes than already existed, but in an atmosphere of such uncertainty there is no better way to cover up holes than with a dependable rotation.

Dennis Martinez is out there, as is Tim Belcher, but they're the best of a weak class of free-agent pitchers. What about a trade? The Mariners were shopping Randy Johnson and Erik Hanson. Johnson could be tough to get, but Hanson is a possibility that makes some sense. Martinez is 38, but still effective. In any event, this is the way to go. The club can foster stability by adding a solid arm to go with Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Jamie Moyer.

* 3. Be real careful about dealing Mike Devereaux. Remember the cautionary tale named Mickey Tettleton. He had a bad year in '90, the Orioles dumped him to avoid paying him, and he has hit 95 homers since. Devo did go backward this year, but could easily bounce back with a huge '94, especially with free agency looming, which means a big season could be worth millions. Why should the Orioles trade him now when his value is down? Only if they can get that solid starting pitcher in return should they even consider it.

* 4. Pretend that Olson doesn't exist. The Orioles' closer is at a crossroads: He could come back as effective as ever, or miss the next two seasons. A pitcher in such uncertain circumstances simply can't be counted on. The Orioles have to make plans without him, and consider themselves lucky if he comes back healthy. So, who is the Plan B closer? It could be Alan Mills, although that means reshuffling the whole bullpen. Better to try a free agent such as Lee Smith or Jeff Reardon, neither of whom would be that expensive.

* 5. Improve the bench. It's unclear who was responsible for this, but besides Jack Voigt and Tim Hulett the Orioles' bench was pretty much useless this year. There were nights when Oates' pinch-hitting choices were Jeff Tackett, Sherman Obando and Damon Buford, all of whom belonged in Rochester. That's not fair to the manager. Give him better bats, at least one of them left-handed, on next year's bench.

* 6. Put Mark McLemore at second base. Harold Reynolds had a solid year, but he's not going to get any better. McLemore is younger, cheaper and can do more things.

* 7. Pray for Hammonds to heal. The front office is a lot more nervous about his curious injury than it has admitted.

* 8. Take a run at Rafael Palmeiro. It's pretty much a wash between Palmeiro and Will Clark, this year's marquee free-agent first basemen. Palmeiro is a year younger (29) and doesn't have to change leagues, so he gets the edge. Either will liven up that lineup in a hurry.

* 9. Bring back Harold Baines. A no-brainer. The best hitter on the team.

* 10. Bring Fernando Valenzuela to camp. It's possible he just ran out of gas after pitching nonstop for 18 months. Even if he doesn't crack the rotation, he might make it in long relief.

So. Well. That's a plan that includes signing two and maybe three free agents, which means a lot of money. But after two years of sellouts at Camden Yards, the money is there. It's about time . . .

And as for whether free agents will want to come here, consider: a jewel of a ballpark, sold out every night. That's precisely what players want. They'll come.

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