O's refuse to cut corners, chances

December 20, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

If Eli Jacobs still owned the Orioles, Harold Reynolds and Leo Gomez would have started at second base and third base in '94. That's what I think.

Baltimore's baseball Scrooge wouldn't have missed the chance to fill two positions with capable players for the discounted price of less than $1 million, combined.

Ho, ho, ho.

Jacobs was fierce in the cutting of such corners, as evidenced by his club's postseason record (no wins, no losses).

Now, with Peter Angelos managing the club's considerable till, the Orioles might spend more than $3 million to fill the positions with Mark McLemore and, possibly, Chris Sabo, who in '93 combined for 154 RBIs, more than twice as many as Reynolds and Gomez.

For Eli-era Orioles fans unfamiliar with such behavior, this is known as genuinely attempting to improve the team.

The $39 million invested in Rafael Palmeiro and Sid Fernandez made it obvious to the Blue Jays, Yankees and the rest of baseball that the Orioles had become far more serious about contending. But these cheaper, fine-print maneuverings are just as significant.

The positive impact of a big free-agent signing can be offset by the cutting of smaller corners to balance the payroll. Baseball is funny that way. A slightly inferior second baseman here, a slightly older middle reliever there -- it doesn't take many of those little two-steps to kick fatal holes in a ballclub.

The signing of McLemore in particular is evidence that the Orioles intend not to undermine their efforts in such a fashion, that they intend to continue to do the right things -- little as well as big -- even after making the big splash Angelos promised.

McLemore delivered just 23 more runs and 25 more RBIs than Reynolds in '93, and, considering Reynolds' slight defensive superiority -- he has better hands -- it was fair to question whether McLemore was worth the extra half-mil. Jacobs wouldn't have thought so. That's what I think. But the fact is that McLemore has far more potential than the quantifiably declining Reynolds, and, as an everyday player, certainly was worth the money.

Remember, McLemore is four years younger than Reynolds, and, unlike Reynolds, also can play the outfield and third base. And he didn't just have a decent '93. He tied for the team lead in hits (as many as Cal Ripken, in 60 fewer at-bats) and ranked second in steals, third in runs and fifth in RBIs.

Reynolds would have been OK, but just that. McLemore is an upgrade.

The Orioles' pursuit of Sabo sends a similar message. Even if they don't get him in the end, it's says a lot that they're apparently willing to spend the money.

Gomez was a pretty fair player in '92, and, after a year of injuries, there is reason to believe he could return to that form. It isn't that much different from Sabo's form. But still, Sabo is clearly a better baseball player, a pro's pro with a long record of production. As long as his back is healthy again, he's a sure thing.

Of course, we're talking about a lot more money in this case. Gomez made around $300,000 last year and doesn't figure to get much of a raise, if any. Sabo reportedly could cost $2 million. Is the difference between them -- maybe not that much statistically -- worth $1.7 million?

Let's answer that with another question: What else do the Orioles, one of the most profitable franchises in sports, have to do with their money? Jacobs isn't there to take out his whopping management fee anymore. And, even with the signings of Palmeiro and Fernandez, their payroll isn't going up much.

That's right, it isn't. Removing Glenn Davis, Rick Sutcliffe, Reynolds, Mark Williamson, Mark Parent and Chito Martinez is a savings of approximately $8.25 million. Palmeiro and Fernandez will cost approximately $7 million in '94, including Palmeiro's signing bonus.

Now, the raises due McLemore, Harold Baines, Chris Hoiles and others will drive the payroll beyond last year's. But that's just the cost of living, baseball-style, by no means a big jump. So, there's plenty of room for a Sabo. And a Terry Mulholland, too, if it comes to that.

That's not to say that the club won't continue to look for ways to reduce the payroll, such as with Todd Frohwirth this winter. It's just smart business. With many of their top young players approaching free agency, they'll need to save while they spend. And yes, they'll still cut some corners. What business doesn't?

But it would appear, at least at this point, that they're willing to swallow the extra salary on such important costs as their starting infielders. (A fairly important cost, no?) The temptation is to say that they're bingeing on free agents, but it's not really so. They're just finally making sense.

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