Orioles' Smith stands head and shoulders above the closing crowd

BASEBALL

May 01, 1994|By TOM KEEGAN

Orioles closer Lee Smith likens himself to a Kmart "blue light special." Even if he weren't 6 feet 6, 269 pounds, it would be difficult to argue with the man on that point.

Based on what he has accomplished as April draws to a close, Smith qualifies as the biggest free-agent bargain of this young season.

Smith had 11 saves in 11 tries heading into the weekend, putting him ahead of the entire American League West in saves. He had allowed no earned runs and five base runners in 9 2/3 innings.

Smith's one-year, $1.5 million contract looks like an even bigger bargain considering the ragged state of bullpens throughout baseball.

No fewer than eight of the 14 projected National League closers have gone onto the disabled list: Atlanta's Gregg Olson, Cincinnati's Rob Dibble, Florida's Bryan Harvey, Montreal's John Wetteland, Philadelphia's Norm Charlton, Pittsburgh's Alejandro Pena, St. Louis' Mike Perez and San Francisco's Rod Beck.

In the NL, the Expos, Los Angeles Dodgers, Phillies and Colorado Rockies had blown at least five saves. In the American League, the Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics had blown five.

The Chicago White Sox, who had one of the best bullpens in baseball last season, thanks largely to closer Roberto Hernandez, had four blown saves in their first seven opportunities, and Hernandez blew two in one week.

Oakland had one save in its first six chances. Most baseball scouts and front-office officials figured Smith would burn out long before Dennis Eckersley, but they figured wrong.

"If I save 60 this year, everyone will say Smitty's burned out," Smith said. "He pitched too much, so he must be burned out."

Any team in baseball could have had Smith simply by outbidding the Orioles, which would have cost teams nothing in personnel and relatively little in money.

Now, several clubs are willing to overpay to secure a proven closer.

Minnesota is dangling Rick Aguilera and likely will get an attractive package of prospects for him.

Harvey, eligible to come off the disabled list May 11, will have several scouts in attendance for his first several return appearances. Harvey, out with a strained flexor muscle, already has been guaranteed $7.5 million from the Marlins. If he appears in 55 games this season or next, the Marlins owe him another $4.5 million.

Questions about his elbow and his hefty contract won't be enough to scare off some general manager who figures his team is one inning, the ninth, away from reaching the expanded postseason.

Another blue light specia

Ron Schueler has been justly criticized for surrendering too much young pitching in trades to acquire Steve Sax and Tim Belcher since taking over as White Sox general manager, but Schueler deserves credit for finding bargain right fielders.

Before last season, Schueler signed Ellis Burks to a free-agent contract with a base salary of $500,000. Burks' back held up well enough for him to earn more than $2 million. But when he insisted on a three-year guaranteed contract, Schueler let him go to the Rockies and set out on another bargain hunt.

He found Darrin Jackson, who failed with the Blue Jays and New York Mets. This season, Jackson looks more like the man who thrived for the San Diego Padres.

Jackson was signed for a base salary of $750,000, plus a potential $800,000 in incentives. He entered the weekend hitting 89 points lower than predecessor Burks, but the White Sox had no complaints, since he was hitting .351.

Julio Franco, another free-agent signee, has given the White Sox the production they lacked from designated hitter last season. Franco had seven home runs and 23 RBIs, the latter total good for second in the AL.

Divisional disparity

Heading into the weekend, the teams with the AL's three best records -- Boston, Baltimore and New York -- played in the East, a strong indication the first wild card will go to a team from the division with two-time defending World Series champion Toronto.

No surprise there. Had baseball been aligned as it is now since 1969, when the leagues split into two divisions, the AL wild card would have come from the East 22 times, the Central twice, the West once.

Since 1969, the five teams now in the Central have had 48 finishes above .500, 73 below, three at the break-even point. The five East teams have gone 87-29-1, the four West teams 34-55-3.

The A's blew seven leads of three or more runs in their first 20 games and hadn't won a game they trailed by more than one run.

Seattle started 0-5 and jogged its way into a first-place tie. The Angels went through a 5-11 stretch and still were tied for first. The Rangers had not won two games in a row until last week. Oakland was 2 1/2 games out of first despite having lost 10 games in a row.

"What a division." Yankees left fielder Luis Polonia said of the West. "How do you get to be in a division like that? Over here, we might have

to win 100 games to win our division. Their division, you can lose 100 games and still win it."

A call to the NL president

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