Deal or stand pat? Hammonds, strike hold key

INSIDE PITCH

June 09, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Sometime within the next few weeks, the Orioles are likely to face decisions that will affect their future as well as the present. They may not be easy ones to make.

Now into the middle third of their schedule, the Orioles are close to the point where they'll have to make a determination about Jeffrey Hammonds. The gifted, but to this point fragile, rookie outfielder has been missing from the lineup so long that he's virtually become a forgotten man.

With Hammonds in the lineup, the need for a left-handed hitter isn't too pressing. Without him, the absence of a left-hander to pinch hit becomes a glaring weakness.

The Orioles have been without Hammonds for almost six weeks -- long enough to at least raise some doubts about what he'll be able to contribute the rest of the season. Without assurances that he'll be able to return at least by the end of the month, the club will be forced to make a move to ensure its competitiveness for the present.

That being the case, the Orioles would have to determine whether they want to overpay for a part-timer such as Jim Eisenreich or Dwight Smith, or take the big gamble and mortgage a significant piece of the future for an established player, such as Larry Walker.

Any move in the latter direction would have to be weighed carefully in consideration of this season's hidden factor -- the very real probability of a strike. Without some contractual guarantees, the Orioles can hardly afford to surrender top young prospects for Walker, who can become a free agent after this season.

To make a trade for Walker, have the season cut short by a strike and then have him take the free-agent walk would be disastrous. After several lean years, the Orioles finally have been able to stockpile some young talent in the minor-league system. They may be able to improve themselves with judicious trades, but they can ill afford to take the high-risk route in return for a Band-Aid.

The Orioles may be able to get a useful player for disgruntled third baseman Chris Sabo, but that's not guaranteed. And they still need to address a pitching staff that has been soft in the middle during the first third of the season.

But the key to this puzzle revolves around Hammonds. The Orioles need to know if he's going to be able to contribute . . . or if he's going to remain on the sidelines as valuable, but damaged goods.

If Hammonds returns, the Orioles can join most of the other big-league teams and concentrate on ways to improve their pitching staff. But it has to be determined, and soon, if he's going to be able to play a significant role.

Either way, the possibility of a strike will play a major role in decisions the Orioles make about the present -- as well as the future.

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