In end, O's wouldn't enter risky business with Olson

January 30, 1994|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

Gregg Olson might beat the odds. He might earn 40 saves for the California Angels or New York Yankees. But after spending millions to improve a third-place team, the Orioles can't take any chances. The lack of a closer threatened to kill their pennant dreams, and that's why they signed Lee Smith.

They'll look foolish if Olson is healthy and Smith is a bust, but at least they're acting now rather than reacting later. No longer must they gamble on Alan Mills and Brad Pennington as their closers. Mills and Pennington can remain in their familiar roles, setting up the game's all-time save leader.

As for Olson, don't be fooled by the club's lip service -- he's gone. The most the Orioles will pay Smith ($2.5 million) apparently is the least they could guarantee Olson. Privately, club officials believe it's 50-50 that Olson can pitch this season. For this team, at this moment, that's too great a risk.

"The perception was that Olson would be back here, but you have to go forward," Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin said. "With the money spent on the offensive side of things, if you don't have a comfortable situation with your bullpen, it might all go for naught."

Indeed, even if the Orioles had kept Olson, they would have needed to sign another reliever, probably Steve Farr. Which would you rather have, two physical question marks or a Hall of Fame closer who has appeared in 62 or more games for 11 straight years, and averaged 45 saves the past three seasons?

Smith, 36, might no longer be the 95-mph terror of old, but former National League rival Chris Sabo gave him a hearty endorsement over a recent dinner with Melvin and general manager Roland Hemond. "Geez, he gets me out with that slider," Sabo told the two executives. "That slider's a tough pitch."

Smith, Sabo, Sid Fernandez, Rafael Palmeiro -- all have something to prove. Smith's velocity declined in August and September, and some believe he's near the end. He gave up a whopping 11 homers in 50 innings before St. Louis traded him to the New York Yankees. Yet, even in an off-year, he earned 46 saves.

Almost all pitchers lose something off their fastball late in the season -- Olson was yet another example. Melvin thinks some scouts misidentified Smith's 81-82 mph slider as his fastball. Hemond is encouraged that Smith faced 33 batters with the Yankees in September, and allowed only four hits.

Yet, with so many teams needing closers, it's odd that Smith didn't sign until almost February, even with Seattle and Cleveland interested. The Orioles added him to their wish list only last week. Johnny Oates knew Smith from their days with the Chicago Cubs, and wasn't thought to be a fan.

Oates was unavailable for comment last night, but Hemond said the manager was happy to add the gregarious closer. "You know, John is so serious all the time," Hemond said, laughing. "Smith did say to me that he'd have be on time with John. But John's real pleased."

He should be, because now he doesn't have to spend the spring worrying about Olson. If Smith falters, the Orioles could always try Mills and Pennington. And if he succeeds, the bullpen could again be a strength, with the two young hard throwers, plus Jim Poole, Mark Eichhorn and Todd Frohwirth.

Mills, for one, doesn't mind that he'll remain in a less prominent role. "Lee Smith is, like, the premier closer in history," he said from his home in Lakeland, Fla. "My main concern has to do with the Orioles winning. Getting him can only help. I think it's a good acquisition."

Spring training will include so many faces, Mills joked, "It's going to be like getting traded." Yet, for all their off-season activity, the Orioles have committed to only two free agents for more than one year (Palmeiro and Fernandez) and lost only one draft pick (to the New York Mets for Fernandez).

The downside is that they're about to lose a pitcher who helped build their foundation. Olson, 27, was a bargain for the Orioles, fTC ranking among the game's top closers while at the bottom end of the pay scale. Perhaps they had a moral obligation to offer him a contract, even if it meant going to salary arbitration.

"You feel terrible for Gregg," Hemond said. "But for pitchers coming off an injury, until they build up in spring training, until they start competing against hitters, you're waiting. We can't afford to just wait. We feel much more comfortable having Lee Smith ready to go than living in hope."

It sounds crazy, but Olson is a victim of the Orioles' dramatic off-season restructuring. Who would have thought it would come to this? The Orioles never would have signed Lee Smith if they didn't have such a good team. And they never would have had such a good team if it weren't for Gregg Olson.

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