O's must put farm first for future


October 22, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Three weeks into October and the Orioles don't have a general manager or a manager, and they don't have a long-term plan. That comes after the GM and the skipper are in place.

No matter who is hired -- Davey Johnson and Kevin Malone, Davey Johnson and Jim Bowden -- they will have lots of work to do, for the organization is approaching a crossroads. One route leads to prosperity, the other to oblivion.

The Orioles will be at least a .500 team next year, as they almost were in 1995. The core of talent is too great for a complete collapse. Players such as Mike Mussina, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and Cal Ripken will ensure that the Orioles will compete, if not necessarily contend.

But beyond the core, there isn't much substance. They have a handful of superstars, surrounded by too few prospects and a collection of fringe major-leaguers. What is frightening for the organization is those who make up the core of superstars, besides Mussina, are all over 30 years old. What's keeping this organization together right now is an aging group of players, and the millions paid out by owner Peter Angelos, vis-a-vis the Camden Yards faithful.

They can contend next year, with an infusion of capital. Sign Roberto Alomar, a slugger such as Sammy Sosa, a couple of pitchers and a few role players and the Orioles can win the AL East.

But they need the substance for the organization to remain healthy over the long haul. It's like having nothing but sweets (Palmeiro, Mussina, etc.) and ignoring the vegetables (the prospects from the farm).

In the top two levels, the Orioles have two good pitching prospects -- Jimmy Haynes and Rocky Coppinger -- and almost nothing else. No position prospects, to be sure, other than a couple of guys who could/might be role players. That's pretty thin.

The next general manager and manager have a tremendous opportunity. They walk into an organization with resources and an owner willing to spend those resources. But they must concentrate on the substance. The farm system, the draft. The Orioles can't afford to let their fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round draft picks go unsigned, as they did this year. Better to pass on a middle reliever who wants $500,000 than to let those draft picks go in a squabble over an extra $25,000.

When Dan Duquette became the Boston Red Sox general manager in 1994, he recognized what an awesome opportunity he had to build a strong organization, so long as the farm system was thick with prospects. The Red Sox will always have the money (just as the Orioles will).

So he concentrated on the draft. That means taking chances in the middle rounds on talented prospects who say they're going to college, and spending more for a third- or fourth-round pick than most middle-round picks are paid.

The Red Sox, like the Orioles, can always have a strong core of players and sign a few free agents merely to contend. The question is how strong beyond the core they can be, and with a good farm system, they have a terrific chance to be competitive for years.

One major-league executive noted last week that while the Orioles have the superstars, it would be possible to reduce their 40-man roster to as few as 25 this winter without any problem. Remember, this is the time of year when most teams struggle to figure out which players to keep on the roster and which to expose to the Rule V draft.

Winning next year is going to be important for the successors of Roland Hemond and Phil Regan. But rebuilding the farm system is even more important for the well-being of the organization.

The Buck stops here

Susan Johnson, Davey's wife, felt proud of her husband for persevering in a rather difficult situation. Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was openly contemptuous of the manager, and made no secret of the fact she did not want him back for next season. "I've never been as proud of my husband as I am now," Susan Johnson said, after the Atlanta Braves swept the Reds in the NL Championship Series. "He got a raw deal, but he was professional to the end." . . . Buck Showalter is a good manager who is often treated as a martyr by the New York and national media because he has to suffer through the presence of hands-on owner George Steinbrenner. All that should stop, if Showalter agrees to return to the Yankees. If Showalter was so miserable, he could wait until his contract expires Oct. 31, and simply walk away. He would have a job waiting for him in Detroit, for new Tigers GM Randy Smith. But if he stays, it would be his own choice, and no one should feel sorry for him. Showalter has a very good idea, by now, exactly what Steinbrenner is all about.

Look, mom, no glove

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