Stats mask blah state of O's pitching, defense

October 01, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

Numbers lie.

It's a corny sporting truism that neatly sums up the Orioles' joyless, forgettable season that ends today -- and highlights the general direction their rebuilding should take.

The club finished first in the American League in defense, near the top in pitching and near the bottom in hitting. From that, we should conclude that offense, or the lack of it, was chiefly responsible for 3 million fans at Camden Yards having so little to cheer about, right?

Wrong.

Not that the lack of offense wasn't a problem. It was a big problem.

But a lack of consistent pitching and defense -- fundamental shortcomings not shown in the numbers -- lay at the core of what went wrong.

The future of the club probably lies in the hands and minds of a new general manager and manager, yet to be identified. But no matter who they are, they should establish pitching and defense as their priorities while giving the club (sigh) yet another overhaul.

A contending club needs to excel somewhere; the Orioles were blah in every aspect of the game this year. And already owing $26.55 million to six players next year, they can't possibly add enough offensive oomph to rise from 13th in the league in hitting to bashers like the Indians or Rockies.

If they're going to win, they're going to win with pitching and defense -- the hallmarks of the club for three decades now. The Orioles declined in both areas this season, despite what the numbers say.

Defensively, there was a lack of range and dependability at second base and third base, and general mediocrity in the outfield other than flawless Brady Anderson. Cal Ripken was terrific and Rafael Palmeiro was solid. That was about it.

The Orioles committed fewer errors than any other team in the league, but that doesn't show how many important ground balls weren't reached, how many extra bases were taken on weak throws, how many general blunders were committed. Defense cost the Orioles more games than it won in 1995. That hasn't been true in a while.

Pursuing free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar makes sense for several reasons -- more speed, a true leadoff hitter -- but none more so than his defense. With Alomar at second, Ripken at short and Anderson in center field, where he belongs, the Orioles would immediately jump from average to brilliant up the middle of their defense, which is the smartest place to start any rebuilding project.

With that kind of foundation, they can almost get away with installing Bobby Bonilla at third, which is a flawed concept that compromises the defense. But Bonilla has to play somewhere, and he has proved credible at third so far, so, well, it's worth a try.

Of course, signing Alomar, only one of the best players in the game, won't be easy at all. Lots of teams are going to go after him, including the Indians, for whom his brother plays. The odds of him becoming an Oriole are, say, less than 50-50.

If he goes elsewhere, the Orioles' Plan B at second should emphasize defense, unlike this year. Same with any moves at third base.

As for the pitching, well, the numbers really lie there. The Orioles allowed fewer hits than any team in the league and finished fourth in ERA, yet no one will argue that their pitching was satisfactory. The starting rotation was in constant flux. The bullpen was a disaster early and blew out late. Not once, except for three weeks in July, was the whole staff in a groove together.

The bullpen needs the most attention; upgrading it should be the club's top off-season priority. Forget bringing back Eddie Murray. What the Orioles need is an array of pitchers to get them through the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, where they lost numerous games this season.

A healthy Mark Eichhorn would be a nice start. Jesse Orosco? He deserves to come back, but, at age 39, might not prove as reliable as he was this year. Otherwise, let's see some new faces and more dependable arms. All shapes and sizes will be available. And at closer, go ahead and renew Doug Jones for another year. He wasn't the problem. Maybe someone else will come along, but Jones is a solid insurance policy.

The starting rotation will center, of course, on Mike Mussina, who cleared his last hurdle this season, proving he has the strength and stamina to last a full season. He'll win 20 for the first time next year.

Who comes after him depends as much on money as talent.

Will Ben McDonald accept a big pay cut to stage his comeback here? Will Scott Erickson ask for a big raise (and price himself out of town) after showing he could win big here? Will Kevin Brown take a pay cut? At the very least, the club should try to get two of those three back in '96, or go after a free agent such as Jim Abbott. That would make for a nice, solid base with Mussina and Jimmy Haynes. And don't forget, Rocky Coppinger might be ready by next season.

In any case, it is clear where the club should spend money -- on the bullpen, on starters, on upgrading the defense. The Orioles used to win that way.

If they're going to win again, that's how they'll do it.

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