Pipe dreams can go down drain, too

November 24, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Andy Benes or Pete Harnisch?

Handcuff me, blindfold me, force me to choose.

Club sources indicate the Orioles are close to trading for one of the two premier right-handers. Manager Johnny Oates would take either, and gleefully make 12-game winner Jamie Moyer his fifth starter.

Oh, for a rotation of Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald, Sid Fernandez, Harnisch or Benes and Moyer. It would be not only the best in the American League East, but also one of the best in baseball.

But will it happen? Under new owner Peter Angelos, the Orioles are engaging in fantasy after fantasy, but except for the signing of Fernandez, failing to turn their dreams into reality.

We're not even at Thanksgiving, so Angelos deserves the benefit of the doubt. But the Orioles didn't sign Will Clark. They probably won't sign Rafael Palmeiro. And they face an uphill fight in their quest for Benes or Harnisch.

Say this for Eli Jacobs -- he never promised anything. Angelos is the guy who claims he would have traded for Fred McGriff. If all this talk is smoke-and-mirrors, he's in for a shorter honeymoon than President Clinton.

Then again, if the Orioles acquire Harnisch or Benes, we'll know he's the real thing -- even though the club still would lack a proven 100-RBI man, with little hope of adding Palmeiro or Bobby Bonilla.

Oates says: "My No. 1 need is pitching, My No. 2 need is pitching. My No. 3 need is pitching." Does he know the Orioles allowed only three more runs than Toronto last season, while scoring 61 fewer?

Obviously, a deal for Benes or Harnisch makes sense. But acquiring Bonilla would be next-to-impossible if the Orioles trade several prospects for a pitcher. And Angelos isn't expected to offer Palmeiro more than the $27.5 million he offered Clark.

General manager Roland Hemond is expected to meet this week with Palmeiro's agent, Jim Bronner. Palmeiro is still furious that Texas snubbed him for Clark, his former Mississippi State teammate and longtime rival.

"If he's a $30 million player, I'm a $40 million player," Palmeiro said, among other things.

The scary part is, Palmeiro might be right -- especially if the Rangers fail to offer him salary arbitration by Dec. 7, and forfeit their rights to draft-pick compensation. The interest in Palmeiro would only grow if teams could sign him without losing their first-round pick.

That should motivate the Orioles to move quickly -- they've already lost their first-round pick by signing Fernandez, and rTC would lose only a second-rounder if they signed Palmeiro. But chances are, they won't move at all.

They always could pursue other free agents -- Chris Sabo, Eddie Murray, etc. Heck, they could even return to Bonilla, because Houston isn't likely to trade Harnisch, and San Diego is even less likely to trade Benes.

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond spoke again with Padres GM Randy Smith yesterday, but Smith continues to insist that San Diego will keep Benes unless he's overwhelmed by another club's offer.

The Astros, meanwhile, appear ready to dump salaries, but they'd probably trade outfielder Steve Finley, reliever Xavier Hernandez or third baseman Ken Caminiti before parting with Harnisch.

"I wouldn't say there's a very strong possibility of that happening," Astros GM Bob Watson said earlier this month -- before losing his top winner, free agent Mark Portugal, to San Francisco.

So, why are the Orioles confident? Because, if nothing else, they've got both clubs talking -- and the discussions with Houston are far enough along that the clubs are negotiating a six- or seven-player deal.

Indeed, the chances appear better of landing Harnisch than Benes -- assuming the Astros are indeed willing to trade him, and the Orioles aren't forced to bid against the talent-rich New York ,, Yankees.

Since Smith doesn't want to trade Benes, he's probably having the time of his life, demanding the Orioles part with shortstop Manny Alexander, outfielder Damon Buford and left-handers Brad Pennington and Arthur Rhodes.

It won't take as much to land Harnisch -- and in a 4-for-2 or 4-for-3 trade, the Orioles would get a greater return. Like Benes, Harnisch is two years away from free agency -- another reason the Astros are reluctant to trade him.

Whatever the outcome, Angelos is raising the stakes immeasurably. Either he's pushing the Orioles toward greatness, setting himself up for a terrible fall. Pray it's the former. It would be an awful thing if Angelos was fooling himself, and the rest of us, too.

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