Next move Orioles make is to the postseason OPENING DAY '94

April 04, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

September 1994: George Steinbrenner hires Jimmy Johnson to replace Buck Showalter as manager. The Boston Red Sox bring back Bill Buckner. The Toronto Blue Jays trade 16 prospects for Barry Bonds.

The division is frantic.

The Orioles are 10 games in front.

Sound crazy? It shouldn't, because this is the Orioles' year. They might not be the second coming of the '27 Yankees, but they've got the fewest questions of any club in baseball's "toughest" division, the American League East.

Repeating for the talk-show crazies:

The fewest.

The Blue Jays? The two-time defending World Series champions will open the season with Todd Stottlemyre as their closer and two rookies from Double-A in their Opening Day lineup.

The Yankees? They have no closer, a half-dozen players who can't possibly duplicate their 1993 seasons, and Steinbrenner itching to pull a Jerry Jones.

The Red Sox? They're so ancient, half the players are older than 35-year-old general manager Dan Duquette, and the others were present at the Salem Witch Trials.

Oops, almost forgot about the Detroit Tigers, the only team in baseball that would be ecstatic to finish with a 4.50 ERA. They'll score their usual zillion runs, but their No. 1 starter, Mike Moore, is about the 12th-best pitcher in the division.

Monstrous hitting, mediocre pitching -- that description could fit the Orioles and Blue Jays as well as the Tigers. It proved a winning combination for the Jays last season. In the age of expansion, why can't another team follow the same formula?

At the end of last season, the Orioles were better than Toronto at only two of nine positions -- shortstop and catcher. Chris Sabo gives them an additional edge over Ed Sprague at third base, and Rafael Palmeiro pulls them even with John Olerud at first.

Brady Anderson wasn't superior to Rickey Henderson in left, but he's significantly better than rookie Carlos Delgado, a converted catcher. Mike Devereaux can be as valuable as Devon White in a good year. And Jeffrey Hammonds narrows the gap to Joe Carter.

Top to bottom, the Orioles' lineup is stronger. According to Sports Illustrated, no other team has ever added two hitters as productive as Palmeiro and Sabo in the same off-season.

The Blue Jays responded by promoting their Double-A phenoms, Delgado and shortstop Alex Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, the Toronto rotation is as suspect as last season's, and the loss -- however temporary -- of injured closer Duane Ward leaves the Jays vulnerable in the late innings for the first time since the mid-1980s.

Only two teams in baseball have truly dominant staffs -- the Atlanta Braves and Chicago White Sox. Of the others, the Orioles have probably the best lineup, and maybe enough pitching to win 95 games.

Yes, it's a big maybe. But why shouldn't Mike Mussina snap out of it? Why shouldn't Ben McDonald evolve into a big winner? Why shouldn't Sid Fernandez rouse himself for 150 to 175 innings and 12 to 15 wins?

This pick amounts to a leap of faith in Mussina -- without him, the Orioles' rotation is as problematic as the Texas Rangers'. He might get rocked in today's opener. He might struggle half the season. But this is Mike Mussina. He never gives in, and three months from now, this will all be behind him.

Still, even if Mussina bounces back, the Orioles' rotation is probably only the third strongest in the division, behind New York's and Boston's. The Yankees would be dangerous if they could muzzle their owner. The Red Sox would be dangerous if they could score runs.

No chance on either count.

Steinbrenner can't keep quiet for another season, can he? You watch, Mr. Baseball will order Showalter to install Jeff Reardon as the Yankees' closer, or something equally ridiculous. And if the cross-town Mets are even mildly competitive, he'll cause even more trouble.

The Red Sox are just the opposite, a team finally stabilizing under Duquette's leadership. They're all excited about Otis Nixon, but they scored 100 fewer runs than the Orioles last season. Nixon can't possibly offset the contributions of Palmeiro, Sabo and a healthy Hammonds.

The Orioles won't run away -- their pitching isn't good enough. But just as surely, they won't get eliminated in August.

If Lee Smith is a bust, they can turn to a bullpen by committee. And if the rotation is a bust, they can turn to owner Peter Angelos for help.

San Diego will be more inclined to trade Andy Benes once it falls out of contention, and ditto for Minnesota with Kevin Tapani. Pat Gillick no doubt will be active in his final season as Blue Jays GM, but Angelos will enable the Orioles' front office to be just as aggressive.

This is a team that finally is ready to win, both on the field and in the executive corridors. Get ready for the Orioles' first postseason appearance in 11 years. Next time, the wait won't be as long.

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