Orioles no closer to solving potential bullpen dilemma

BASEBALL

December 12, 1993|By PETER SCHMUCK

The Orioles have made good on their promise to improve the starting rotation. They have spent the past week working hard to bulk up the offense with the possible acquisition of Rafael Palmeiro. The club appears to be one step away from making a legitimate run at the American League East title, but there is still that one nagging question.

The bullpen.

Closer Gregg Olson continues to rehabilitate the elbow injury that cost him the final months of the 1993 season. He is confident that he will be ready to reassume his role as one of the top short relievers in the game, but the team cannot go into 1994 without making some attempt to ensure stability in such a critical area.

"It would be crazy not to have some insurance," manager Johnny Oates said. "Gregg feels he's going to be ready, but we aren't going to know for sure until he starts throwing a baseball. Ideally, we'll have Gregg, but we have to have an alternative."

Oates wasn't necessarily talking about signing another closer. He knows that most of the free-agent alternatives are as iffy as Olson's situation. The Orioles could sign Lee Smith or Jeff Reardon, but who's to say they would be better at this point in their careers than a promising Alan Mills? The club could turn to Steve Farr, but he also presents physical questions.

"I'm not saying that there is any alternative that would be up to the quality that Gregg would give us if he is healthy," Oates said, "but we have some ideas."

Chances are, the Orioles will go into spring training with Mills as the alternative closer. He throws hard and he worked adequately in that role after Olson went on the disabled list in August. The club apparently is close to signing veteran setup man Mark Eichhorn to provide depth and free Mills for a late-inning role if that becomes necessary.

Olson continues his off-season rehabilitation program in the hope that he won't need reconstructive elbow surgery to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament that has threatened his career. He said Friday that he has no serious doubts about his ability to pitch in 1994.

"I feel completely at ease with what's going to happen in the spring," he said. "Right now, I can't seem to hurt it. I can't feel it. But I guess nobody's going to believe that until next October."

The Orioles have to make an evaluation much sooner than that. They have to decide whether to tender Olson a contract on Dec. 20. If they do, he will be eligible for arbitration and should stand to parlay last year's 29 saves and 1.60 ERA into a significant raise. If they don't, he would become a free agent, but the club still would be eligible to re-sign him to a lesser deal.

It's a sticky issue. Releasing Olson -- even with the intention of re-signing him -- would be a public relations disaster, since he has saved 160 games for the Orioles in his first five seasons. Tendering him a contract could be very costly, since he likely would get about $4 million from an arbitrator for a 1994 season in which his availability is very much in question.

"I really don't know what's going to happen," Olson said. "They [the Orioles and agent Jeff Moorad] made contact a few days ago, but I don't know. It's a different kind of situation to be in. I don't know if Dec. 20 is going to be an issue or not."

The Dec. 20 date also is important to the Orioles for a related reason. If cost-conscious clubs flush a number of arbitration-eligible players into the free-agent market that day, the Orioles may be in a position to pick up the solid middle reliever that would help ensure them against an Olson breakdown.

Bad news Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers had a horrible 1993 season, but they could take some comfort in the development of some promising young pitchers who figured to solidify the club's starting rotation in 1994.

The off-season has gone as badly as their '93 free fall, and a couple of pitching prospects have gone by the board. Left-hander Angel Miranda, who was expected to spend his first full season in the rotation this year, tore a knee ligament playing winter ball and will be lost for at least half of 1994. The Brewers also lost promising Jamie McAndrew to shoulder surgery.

The loss of Miranda was particularly galling because the Brewers' front office had asked him to take the winter off instead of pitching in Puerto Rico. Now, the club has to hope that veteran left-hander Ted Higuera can work himself back into shape in the Mexican Winter League and return to the rotation.

More Brewers woes

It has to be tough to be a Brewers fan. Not only is the club in a competitive recession without much hope in sight, but the future of the organization is clouded in uncertainty.

The Brewers appeared to be on the verge of a major turnaround when the team and the community embarked on an ambitious new stadium project a few years ago, but environmental considerations delayed the project, and baseball's complicated labor situation has put it on hold indefinitely.

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