O's head south with winning feeling

February 13, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

The city of Baltimore may be courting NFL owner Al Davis, but the Orioles have appropriated his motto. In the wake of the club's busiest off-season in history, there is only one way to look at the 1994 season.

Just win, baby.

New owner Peter Angelos has done his part, stocking a competitive team with new talent and making it clear that he will spend whatever is necessary to get to the World Series. Major League Baseball has done its part, too, adding a playoff tier that makes it possible to get into the postseason without overtaking the two-time defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays.

Now, it falls to manager Johnny Oates and his upgraded roster to take the next step, and he will get to work later this week when the Orioles open spring training camp at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla. The pitchers and catchers open workouts Friday and the full squad will be in camp five days later for the club's most legitimate assault on the American League pennant in a decade.

If all that means added pressure on Oates and the front-office officials who assembled the roster, they don't seem to be feeling the heat.

"I don't look at it that way," said general manager Roland Hemond. "You would much rather be in a position to go in with more confidence, rather than some years when you go in hoping to win but knowing that you might not have all the talent you need. If you have talent and depth, at least you've got a chance to overcome the unexpected."

The Orioles appear to be a far better club than the one that pushed the Blue Jays for five months last year, but Oates expects to take the same low-key approach that got him through a trying 1993 season.

"I'm going to do the same job no matter what," Oates said. "I'm going to do the best I can no matter what kind of team I've got. If that isn't good enough, then I shouldn't be there."

Perhaps, but he can't wait to get there. The Orioles remained in contention into September in each of the past two seasons with far less talent than the club he will bring into camp this spring. The acquisition of left-hander Sid Fernandez solidifies the starting rotation, the addition of all-time saves leader Lee Smith should stabilize the bullpen and the arrival of run-producing infielders Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo gives the club tremendous offensive potential.

"I'm looking forward to this ballclub," Oates said. "I think that this team is going to be fine. There are no bad apples . . . no headaches . . . just a lot of guys who want to play. Motivating them is not going to be a problem."

There still are questions. There always are questions. The 1993 season was derailed by a series of late-season injuries that made it difficult to compete with the talented Blue Jays. The Orioles went without their best starting pitcher (Mike Mussina) and their best reliever (Gregg Olson) down the stretch. They lost seven members of the starting lineup for varying periods during the season.

"You just can't afford to lose two or three of your best players," Oates said. "Last year, we lost every player except Cal Ripken and Harold Reynolds at some point, and we still stayed in it. You have to give our players credit. Going down the stretch, we lost our ace and our closer, and our No. 3 hitter [Mike Devereaux] was not healthy. I'd like to see Toronto or anybody else try to win doing that."

Some of those questions remain. Mussina still has to prove his durability after a season of back and shoulder problems. So does right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who is coming back from a neck injury. They each were declared healthy over the winter, but physical questions can never really be answered outside the white lines.

The Orioles won't have to worry about Olson's physical condition anymore, but they still have to wonder about their closer. Smith, 36, saved 46 games last year, but his vulnerability to the long ball raised doubts about the strength of his arm.

If the new Orioles are good, they still need to be lucky if they are going to fulfill the promise of the post-Eli Jacobs era.

"We have got to dodge the injuries this year," Oates said. "You can only back up your depth so far."

To their credit, the Orioles went out of their way to back themselves up in every area. They brought back former Orioles utility man Rene Gonzales to compete for a reserve infield role. They signed veteran catcher Rich Gedman to a minor-league contract to add depth behind the plate. They signed free-agent reliever Mark Eichhorn to deepen the bullpen. They added veteran outfielder Henry Cotto and re-signed outfielder Lonnie Smith to put more experience on the bench. The turnover has been so dramatic that it raises one more question:

Will the Orioles have the same positive chemistry that has helped them get over the rough spots the past couple of years?

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