Orioles get the right signs, now they need deal to start

February 18, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- San Diego general manager Randy Smith says the Padres will keep Andy Benes. Houston GM Bob Watson says the Astros will keep Pete Harnisch.

That's bad news for the Orioles, whose starting rotation might be only the third best in the five-team AL East, behind New York and Boston.

The addition of Benes or Harnisch would make them the clear division favorite, but the way Smith and Watson are talking, the possibility of landing either premier right-hander is slim.

Indeed, even if one of the GMs shifts course, the Orioles would face stiff competition for Benes or Harnisch from their two chief division rivals -- New York and Toronto.

So, for all they accomplished under new owner Peter Angelos this winter, the Orioles enter spring training one injury away from moving a Triple-A pitcher into their rotation.

Rookies Kevin McGehee, John O'Donoghue and Mike Oquist are the alternatives if one of the top five starters is injured. Together, they've combined for one major-league start.

Virtually every team is in the same predicament, or worse. But Angelosappears hellbent on winning this season, and the Orioles might not be good enough without another quality starter.

Benes?

"We're not interested in moving the guy," Smith said. "If someone called, yeah, we'd listen. But we're counting on him being our Opening Day pitcher, counting on him being around."

Harnisch?

"He's been off the market for a couple of weeks," Watson said. "We're going to hold on to him. We're going to go into the season with him. He'll probably be our Opening Day pitcher."

Undaunted by such talk, the Orioles plan to renew their pursuit of both pitchers this spring. They believe Watson might again reverse himself and that even Smith might turn receptive.

"People can change their minds," general manager Roland Hemond said yesterday. "You keep staying in touch. Or you ask, 'If you have a change of heart, please call us before you do anything.' "

Right now, the Orioles aren't considering other options, but that, too, could change. Kansas City's Tom Gordon just won $2.6 million in arbitration. He might be available now.

The issue is important, because the addition of another starter could result in a domino effect that would improve the entire pitching staff -- as long as the club kept Arthur Rhodes.

That might be too much to ask -- San Diego apparently would demand Rhodes and shortstop Manny Alexander in a package for Benes -- but the Orioles can dream, can't they?

Think about it:

Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Sid Fernandez figure to be the club's best 1-2-3 combination in years, but manager Johnny Oates would be even more comfortable with the brittle Fernandez in the No. 4 spot.

That way, Jamie Moyer could remain the No. 5 starter, Rhodes could move into long relief and Brad Pennington could start the season where he belongs, at Triple-A Rochester.

Moyer deserves the chance to prove his 12 wins were no fluke -- the front office backed off Rick Sutcliffe partly because it feared Oates would give his longtime friend Moyer's job.

Rhodes might finally show consistency in the bullpen, where he'd be a left-handed Alan Mills, giving the Orioles two hard throwers in the middle innings.

And Pennington almost certainly would benefit from returning to Triple-A, where he could regain his confidence and establish himself as the closer of the future.

A trade for a big-time starter would make all that possible, and, at one point anyway, the package for Harnisch did not include Rhodes.

The talks with Houston collapsed when Watson kept insisting on Jeffrey Hammonds. The first-year GM took the same shoot-for-the-moon approach with other teams, apparently demanding Manny Ramirez from Cleveland and Carlos Delgado from Toronto.

The Blue Jays need Harnisch more than the Orioles do -- their rotation consists of Juan Guzman, Dave Stewart, Pat Hentgen, Todd Stottlemyre and Al Leiter. Surely, they regret trading top prospect Steve Karsay for Rickey Henderson.

The Yankees? They've got Jimmy Key, Jim Abbott, Melido Perez, Terry Mulholland and several contenders for the fifth spot. The Red Sox? They've got Roger Clemens, Frank Viola, Aaron Sele and Danny Darwin, plus Joe Hesketh or Nate Minchey.

The team that could get Benes or Harnisch would be the team to beat in the AL East. The Orioles have figured out how to sign free agents. The question of the spring is whether they can defy the odds and make a blockbuster trade.

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