Next 2 weeks may prove critical to '94 O's

BASEBALL

October 31, 1993|By PETER SCHMUCK

They call it the off-season, as if to infer that the baseball season actually ends on a certain date and then picks up again the following spring.

It isn't like that any more, of course. The competition never stops. The games move indoors and upstairs, but the off-season approach of a team could be just as important as on-field strategy in the quest to win the world championship.

The Toronto Blue Jays are a great example. The decisions made last winter had a tremendous impact on their ability to become the first team in 15 years to win back-to-back titles. The Jays lost several front-line players, but their decisiveness at last year's winter meetings kept them at the top of their class.

The Orioles hope to have the same kind of success this year. They have gotten the go-ahead from new managing general partner Peter Angelos to spend a substantial sum in the free-agent market to improve the club. They had enough talent to stay in the race for most of the 1993 season, so there is room for hope that a couple of quality players will put them over the top.

But it's not as simple as that. The Orioles will have to make progress on several fronts to stay in position for a serious challenge. The month of October was relatively quiet, but the first half of November could be critical to that effort. Here's a look at what might be forthcoming over the next two weeks:

The decision: Angelos has all but announced that Doug Melvin will be the next general manager of the club, which leaves plenty of room to wonder what will become of fellow assistant GM Frank Robinson.

The last dominoes are about to fall. Angelos could announce early this week the final configuration of the Orioles front office, which will include Roland Hemond in the role of vice chairman of baseball operations -- the job former club president Larry Lucchino turned down on Friday.

Melvin figures to move into the GM role that the Orioles have been grooming him for the past eight years and Robinson figures to be very disappointed.

Robinson moved into the front office after he was fired as manager in 1991, hoping to establish himself as a viable GM candidate. He has done that, but now finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. He needs to stay active in the front office to keep his options open for a GM post with another club, but he isn't going to be happy playing a subordinate role to a man who is 17 years his junior.

The examination: Outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds soon will undergo another series of tests to determine if his injured neck is responding to the rehabilitation program that he embarked on late in the season.

Hammonds is suffering from a herniated disk in his neck -- an injury that could require surgery if he does not respond to more conservative treatment. If that is the case, he probably would be lost for all of next season.

The injury has all sorts of ramifications for the Orioles front office. If the upcoming examination goes well, the team can go ahead with its plans to move Mark McLemore to second base and concentrate on acquiring a run-producing first baseman in the free-agent market. If not, the Orioles might have to re-sign second baseman Harold Reynolds and keep McLemore in the outfield, or change their off-season priorities.

Hammonds' agent, Jeff Moorad, said last week that the Orioles' top draft choice of 1992 is making progress and feels confident that no surgery will be required. The Orioles can only hope he's right, because he has become a troublesome variable in the club's 1994 equation.

The market: The free-agent filing period will end nine days hence, leaving the Orioles to put up or shut up in the free-agent market. Angelos has said since the day he bought the team that he will spend a substantial sum to bring the club up to championship caliber. He's about to get his chance.

The Orioles are known to be interested in a number of front-line players. They would like to acquire starting pitcher Sid Fernandez and one of two veteran first basemen -- Will Clark or Rafael Palmeiro -- to solidify a decent club.

The club also needs to address the uncertainty surrounding the physical condition of relief closer Gregg Olson, who made just one appearance over the final two months of the '93 season because of a partial ligament tear in his right elbow. If he needs radical elbow surgery, the club needs to find a dependable late-inning guy to replace him. Trouble is, he probably won't put his arm to any kind of test until next spring.

What to do? The Orioles could try to trade for a top-flight closer (since no one stands out on the list of free agents), but that probably would annex some of the money earmarked for improvements in other areas and leave the club no better off than last year.

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