Erickson trade was a no-brainer that had to be made

July 08, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHICAGO -- The Red Sox trade for one of baseball's best closers. The Orioles trade for a starter with a 20-36 record since 1993.

No, the Orioles certainly didn't close the gap between themselves and the AL East leaders. But their trade for Scott Erickson is no blunder.

Understand, closing the gap on the Sox became impossible once the Sox shrewdly filled their biggest hole by acquiring closer Rick Aguilera from the Twins. Did someone check and see if Pat Gillick isn't working for the Sox on the sly? Considering how many saves the Sox bullpen was blowing, Aguilera means a minimum of five extra wins.

A similarly bold stroke for the Orioles would have been a trade for a monster cleanup hitter or a No. 1 starter, a Joe Carter or a David Cone. Didn't happen. Never happens.

But hold off on the complaints, Chicken Littles. Considering how little Erickson cost, dealing for him was a no-brainer.

It's an excellent deal that, once available, had to be made.

Sure, trading for Cone, who is very available, would have been better. But Cone has six wins this year, Erickson four. That's just not enough of a disparity to justify giving up Armando Benitez or Jeffrey Hammonds (the cost of Cone) as

opposed to giving up what it cost to get Erickson.

Scott Klingenbeck, sent to the Twins, is an average prospect who was never going to be more than a long reliever here, at best, when everyone is healthy. There are several more like him in the pipeline. And Kimera Bartee, a Bowie outfielder whom the Twins want as the player named later, projects as no more than a backup in the bigs.

Getting Erickson for Klingenbeck and Bartee amounts to getting Erickson for free.

Maybe it wasn't the boldest stroke possible, but it was the move that the Tigers and particularly the Yankees, suddenly bereft of quality pitching, desperately needed to make -- and could easily have made, considering that the Twins are dumping salaries and obviously willing to settle for little in return.

Yes, it's possible Erickson won't help that much. His numbers have declined since his 20-8 performance in 1991. At age 27, with a 61-60 career record, his label reads as follows: undeniably major talent, questionable heart, underachiever.

But it's more likely he'll prove a useful addition. There is reason to believe he'll pitch better in Baltimore than he did in Minnesota.

He's a power sinkerball pitcher who was totally out of place in the carpeted Metrodome; his ERA on grass is a full run lower than onplastic. He has an 11-3 career record on the road and on grass against the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers.

But the stat that most argues on his behalf is 70 percent -- the number of starts in which he has pitched into the seventh inning. He has the talent to keep his team in games, and his arrival, along with the imminent return of Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald from the disabled list, gives the Orioles five such starters -- Mike Mussina, McDonald, Brown, Erickson and new ace Jamie Moyer.

That's the most capable rotation in the division, the foundation of any move the Orioles hope to make in the standings after the All-Star break. No rookies, no Arthur Rhodes, no Sid Fernandez, no nights of watching manager Phil Regan pray that his starter makes it through five innings without blowing up.

Sure, the rotation easily could flop, as it has in the first half of the season, but there is no denying that the right pieces are in place.

Getting Cone would have been a master stroke, no doubt about it. But it also would have amounted to instant gratification, with no long-term return, considering that Cone is a free agent after this season and wants $8 million a year or something like that. Sorry, but giving up Hammonds or Benitez for half a season of Cone would have been just plain stupid.

Trading such a top prospect for Carter, who has another year after this left on his contract, would make at least a little more sense. But Carter's salary for next season is over $6 million, and the Orioles, as rich as they are, can't take on too much more salary. Besides, Carter's name doesn't seem to be popping up amid the many trade rumors coming out of Toronto.

Acquiring Erickson when Cone was available is a trademark bridesmaid move of Roland Hemond's Orioles, but this time you'll hear no second-guessing here. What has ailed the Orioles so far in 1995 is a lot more than one player can fix, so why get rid of a cornerstone prospect trying to fix it? Makes no sense. Meanwhile, Erickson is a talented pitcher who could shine. And his rock-bottom bargain price makes this trade a smart one.

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