Orioles' deal for Bonilla comes with potentially costly trade-offs

July 31, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

Desperation is trading your best minor-league prospect when you're still waging war on .500 as August nears.

Desperation is maxing out your payroll for next season when there are still two months left in this season.

Desperation is caving in to another team's trade demands only because George Steinbrenner, who hasn't been to the playoffs in 14 years -- not exactly a smart lead to follow -- is just as desperate as you.

Desperation, the wrong mood in which to make a trade, is what drove the Orioles to acquire Bobby Bonilla.

They gave up too much. They damaged their future in numerous ways. It's probably a trade they'll regret.

But we know why they made it.

Peter Angelos spent $173 million to buy the club, then another $42 million to put this year's team together, and what is there to show for all that outgoing cash? A .500 record, with first place still just a distant island to dream about, like the Caribbean in the dead of a Bawlmer winter.

Annex that major disappointment to a once-proud franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since Ronald Reagan's first term, and what do you have?

Desperation. In several forms.

There is the desperation of Angelos to deliver the winner he pledged to build. A winner in any form. Say hello to the Orioles' new motto: Wild card or bust!

Then there was the desperation of one club official who said last week, after a column advocating that the Bonilla trade not be made: "What am I supposed to do, sit around and wait to get fired?"

Point made. And understood. There were several factors that all but demanded that the deal go down, the most compelling being that the fans deserved such an aggressive stroke after being used and taken for granted by Eli Jacobs. No argument there.

And with no labor talks in sight, there might never be another baseball season after this one, so why not mortgage the future to try to win now?

Just kidding. There'll be baseball again someday, and how the Orioles will approach it after this season is anyone's guess. They've got problems now. Owing $26.55 million to six players means they'll probably need to trade Brady Anderson, give up on Ben McDonald, forget Ron Gant, realign their rotation and goodness knows what else. Maybe not all of those things, but some.

Was trading Bonilla worth freezing yourself like that, especially in a year when the Orioles aren't that good and the Cleveland Indians are five lengths better than the rest of the AL field? Doubtful.

Oh, sure, it should make the rest of this season more interesting. The Orioles could win the AL East. But you'll never convince me that they weren't going to win it anyway, even without Bonilla. The Red Sox? Dead. The Yankees? Even with David Cone and Ruben Sierra on board, they're hardly the monster many expected.

Maybe it's true that trading for Bonilla improves the Orioles' chances of at least passing one team and making the playoffs as the AL wild card. Big deal. The fans don't care about the wild-card race. Getting excited about the wild-card race is like getting excited about a roller hockey game on ESPN2. Did someone say "trumped up solely for television?" Funny, I could swear someone did.

In any case, the biggest problems with the Bonilla trade were a) what the Orioles gave up, and b) what it says about the way the club operates.

No one knows if Alex Ochoa is going to be a star. But many of the Orioles' minor-league officials thought they were looking at one who would last well into the next century. If that's true, making this trade with the team stuck at .500 will look ridiculous in hindsight.

And let's face it, the final decision to make the trade was a knee-jerk reaction to the Yankees' double dealings last Friday. This year, it was Bonilla the club just had to have, Bonilla who would solve all ills, as if one player can ever do that. What about next year, when someone else becomes the coveted savior? Rocky Coppinger, come on down! You're gone, pal.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I don't think that's a wise way to run a club. You just get more and more swollen with more and more stars from other teams, and your minor-league system -- your lifeline -- gets more and more useless. Then one day, you crash.

Not that trading prospects in a late-season deal is necessarily a mistake. But you should make such deals -- at least ones in which you give away a commodity as valued as Ochoa -- only when you're trying to maximize an excellent season in which you have an obvious chance to go far.

If the Orioles are going far this year, it's not obvious yet. And that's why giving away Alex Ochoa was wasteful.

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