O's lineup is a winner . . . so far

BASEBALL'S BACK

April 26, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He is asked what he likes about the 1995 Orioles, which of his new teammates will help the most, how good he thinks the team could be. But this line of questioning makes shortstop Cal Ripken feel uncomfortable.

It's a long, long season, he says, lots can happen. No one is smart enough to make valid predictions in April, and besides, Ripken doesn't think it's his place to comment on the comings and goings of other players.

But he did allow this: At the beginning of each season, every team in baseball is optimistic about its chances. In reality, Ripken said, there are probably just a handful of teams that "have the components for a championship team."

The Orioles, Ripken says, could be one of those teams. On paper, the Orioles have a solid nucleus of players.

On paper. "That's the easy part," Ripken said.

The hard part begins today, when the Orioles open the strike-delayed 1995 season here against the Kansas City Royals. Mike Mussina pitches for the Orioles. Ripken is expected to start his 2,010th consecutive game. Phil Regan makes his managerial debut -- which is a bit deceiving, because in his mind, anyway, he's been managing this team for months.

During the winter, he jotted down dozens of potential lineups. If his hands were idle and he happened to have a piece of scrap paper and a pen, he would start writing; his wife once scolded him for writing out batting orders in church.

Passing through Baltimore in early February, Regan stopped by his Camden Yards office and pulled out a notepad, on which he wrote three needs that had to be addressed.

1) A starting pitcher. Regan had heard Sid Fernandez was losing weight and thought that Arthur Rhodes was ready to turn the corner, but he wanted another veteran behind Mussina and Ben McDonald. Under the heading of potential answers, one of the names Regan wrote down was Kevin Brown.

On April 9, the Orioles signed Kevin Brown.

2) A center fielder. Regan said publicly that he was sure that young center fielder Curtis Goodwin could develop into a star. But resting the team's fate in the hands of a kid making the jump from Double-A. . . . Could be a stretch. Regan also wasn't sure if right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds would be ready to start the year. Heck, a guy coming back from reconstructive knee surgery -- he couldn't be sure if Hammonds would play at all in 1995.

Regan wrote down Andy Van Slyke. Top of the list.

Last Friday, after some arduous negotiations, the Orioles signed Van Slyke. And, remarkably, Hammonds has recovered enough to be in the Opening Day lineup.

3) A closer, and a left-hander for the bullpen. Regan had seen Armando Benitez pitch during the winter, and was certain that one day he would be the closer. Nevertheless, the Orioles needed a fall-back position, perhaps somebody who could serve in a transitional role, until Benitez was ready.

The Orioles' negotiations with left-handed reliever John Franco seemed to be going well, so he was at the top of the list. Further down was a veteran right-hander named Doug Jones.

He, too, signed on April 9. So did left-hander Jesse Orosco.

Much of what was envisioned, by Regan and general manager Roland Hemond, has taken place. They've had their fair share of good fortune, as well.

The Orioles tried and failed to sign Mariners right fielder Jay Buhner. They would've had a hard time investing cash in Brown and Jones and the others had they committed themselves to pay Buhner the $5 million per year for which he signed. "Losing out on Buhner, that might've been the best thing that happened to us during the entire off-season," said one member of the front office.

The owners botched the legal issues surrounding the strike so badly that they couldn't risk starting the season with replacement players; had the replacement season started, the Orioles could've been forced to forfeit their early-season games, their ability to compete compromised.

At one time, it appeared the Orioles' pursuit of Van Slyke was over. Looking elsewhere, they signed veteran outfielder Kevin Bass for $250,000. With each passing day, Regan loves him more and more. "He is going to be a very important part of this team," Regan said Monday.

It probably wouldn't have happened if negotiations with Van Slyke hadn't broken down.

Piece by piece, Regan and Hemond and assistant general manager Frank Robinson have put together the 1995 Orioles. A very good starting rotation, a solid defensive team, a good offense, a super bench, a so-so bullpen that Regan says will be fine.

On paper, a championship-caliber team.

But that's the easy part.

+ The hard part begins today.

ORIOLES TODAY

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

Time: 2:35 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (16-5, 3.06 in 1994) vs. Royals' Kevin Appier (7-6, 3.83 in 1994)

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