Don't order O's playoff tickets yet

BASEBALL

December 19, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

Now that owner Peter Angelos has backed up the talk by taking the walk, expectations for the Orioles in 1994 already seem to include postseason play.

Not so fast.

The free-agent acquisitions of Sid Fernandez, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark Eichhorn have dramatically improved the Orioles. The moves made so far represent much more than a tuneup, but the overhaul doesn't guarantee a trip to the playoffs.

There is one not-so-minor factor that has been overlooked in the euphoria surrounding the spending spree: The Orioles finished tied for third last season, meaning they have to overtake three teams and make up 10 games in the standings.

A few acquisitions, as impressive as they appear on paper right now, don't assure that kind of improvement.

Even with the addition of Palmeiro, Fernandez and Eichhorn, and the re-signing of Mark McLemore, the Orioles still could use depth of every kind -- pitching, infield and outfield.

While trying to fill those voids, general manager Roland Hemond and assistants Frank Robinson and Doug Melvin have to be careful not to mortgage the future. They really can't give up left-hander Arthur Rhodes and shortstop Manny Alexander without paying a heavy price down the road.

Angelos said the club is "not necessarily finished" dealing in the free-agent market, though pickings now are slimmer than leftovers from Thanksgiving's turkey. And he continues to give indications that another starting pitcher will show up for spring training.

Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Terry Mulholland is supposedly the current "available pitcher of the week." A potential free agent next year, Mulholland would be expensive -- in terms of the talent that the Orioles would have to give up, and in terms of salary.

Angelos already has emptied at least one deep pocket, so it figures the Orioles will check out the after-Christmas sales.

The physical condition of closer Gregg Olson and, to a lesser extent, outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, are other vital factors that cannot be dismissed lightly.

The Orioles have made impressive strides in an effort to narrow the gap between them and the two-time World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays. But there are no guarantees that the improvements made will be enough.

Where the Wild Thing stands

Credit Jayson Stark, the Philadelphia Inquirer's baseball guru, with digging up some choice tidbits on Mitch Williams, the Phillies closer. Stark's research revealed that "Wild Thing" is the first pitcher in baseball history to throw the final, game-losing, pitch in any postseason series and get traded before he threw another.

Another Phillies left-hander, Tom Underwood, came close. Underwood, who played for the Orioles in 1984, threw the Phillies' last pitch of the 1976 playoffs, against the Cincinnati Reds, and was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals the following June.

Some other Wild Thing items of interest:

According to Stats Inc., the people who unearth such trivia, Williams was the only reliever in baseball last year who had more than 18 saves and never entered a game with the tying run on base.

Of Williams' 43 saves, 31 (in 32 chances) came in games in which the first batter he faced did not represent the tying run -- meaning he had at least a two-run lead.

Counting postseason play, 33 of Williams' 46 saves (72 percent) came when he had leads of at least three runs.

Another twist is that Williams didn't blow a save for ex-Oriole Curt Schilling (who publicly ripped the left-hander) -- until this year's playoffs.

Counting postseason play, when his buddy Mitch got into the act, Schilling lost seven potential wins to blown saves in 1993.

A steal for the Red Sox

As expected, Otis Nixon found a perfect match with the Boston Red Sox, who desperately needed speed and a center fielder.

In the three seasons before 1993, when Deion Sanders took over much of his playing time, Nixon stole 163 bases.

During the same period of time the Red Sox as a team had 156 stolen bases.

Link wasn't missing

There is an interesting story behind Brian Link, the Orioles' outfield-first base prospect, who was the Rookie-level Appalachian League Most Valuable Player last season. He was recommended by Earl Winn, the scout who signed Palmeiro for the Chicago Cubs.

Link had a poor junior year at Austin Peay, but Winn, in his first year with the Orioles, saw something familiar.

"I kept going back [to see Link play] because he had a swing that reminded me of Rafael," he said.

Link hit .338 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs for Bluefield. His season was judged by Baseball America as the fourth-most-impressive debut by a member of the amateur draft class of 1993.

Not bad for a 32nd-round draft choice.

Just wondering

Impertinent Question Of The Week: How many phone calls will Orioles GM Hemond make, or receive, during his long-awaited vacation that begins today?

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