O's focus on next target: Cuban arms

January 12, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Forget getting Mike Devereaux. Forget losing Tony Phillips.

The real question is, will the Orioles sign the Cubans?

Two of their top four baseball executives -- assistant GM Kevin Malone and scouting director Gary Nickels -- are in the Dominican Republic, following two pitchers who defected from the Cuban national team.

A third club official, special assignment scout Don Welke, is not only in the same hotel as the representative for the two pitchers, he's in the very next room.

Sounds like Pat Gillick is up to his old tricks.

As the Toronto GM, he once arranged to get an airline seat next to Gregg Olson, the better to sell the free-agent reliever on the idea of joining the Blue Jays.

And in 1992, he signed Brazilian pitcher Jose Pett for $700,000 -- a record bonus for a foreign player, at that time, by more than $550,000.

Now Welke, his old Toronto sleuth, is in the room next to Joe Cubas, the agent for Osvaldo Fernandez, 27, and Levon Hernandez, 20 (ages subject to change).

Presumably, Welke is holding a stethoscope to the walls, and listening in when the Blue Jays or Florida Marlins call.

"He had a pretty good idea of where this guy was," Gillick said last night. "He just happened to get the room right next to him."

Sure, Pat.

As if it were an accident.

One report out of the Dominican said the Orioles and Marlins are the front-runners to sign the two pitchers. Cubas told the Associated Press that a decision could come as soon as today.

"We're in there," Gillick said. "But four or five clubs are in there pretty heavy."

Gillick said Fernandez, the older pitcher, could pitch in the majors next season, perhaps as a fourth or fifth starter, or middle-inning reliever.

Hernandez is a hard-throwing prospect, and apparently the bigger prize.

Malone told the AP the Orioles "certainly are interested in Levon, but we would also like to get Osvaldo."

"We've got very good reports on them," Gillick said.

Heck, maybe owner Peter Angelos should just buy Cuba. Then, whenever Baltimore was threatened with snow, we could all retreat to our winter homes in Havana.

In any case, Gillick said the Orioles' potential investment in the Cubans had no bearing on his refusal to sign Phillips. He just didn't want to guarantee a second year for a 36-year-old leadoff hitter, that's all.

Gillick said the Orioles offered Phillips a one-year, $2.15 million deal with a $1.75 million club option. They signed Devereaux for one year at $700,000 plus incentives -- less than one-fourth what the outfielder earned in 1994 with the Orioles.

Bravo to Devo for burying his pride and coming home.

Remember Gillick's plan to hold the payroll to $40 million? He now has committed nearly that amount to 13 players, not including the salary Scott Erickson will receive in arbitration. Still, he's mostly avoiding long-term deals, whether for Phillips or Kenny Rogers.

Phillips, a major contributor for the California Angels last season, is a dynamic leadoff hitter, versatile utility player and in-your-face competitor. He would have been an intriguing addition. But on balance, the Orioles may be better off without him.

As we saw last season, there can be such a thing as too much turnover. Devereaux will be a complementary player, a fourth outfielder and part-time DH. Phillips, on the other hand, would have changed the entire mix.

Specifically, he would have replaced Brady Anderson in the leadoff spot, forcing Anderson to hit lower in the order. True, Phillips is a better leadoff hitter than Anderson. But what would have been the net gain if Anderson had become less productive hitting seventh?

That possibility existed -- Anderson would have been expected to drive in runs in the seventh spot, and he's less effective when he tries to hit for power, striking out too often instead of getting on base.

Indeed, that is his biggest drawback as a leadoff man -- and even then, Anderson is above-average in that role. The guy scored 108 runs last season, OK? He must be doing something right.

Besides, the importance of a leadoff man can be overrated. The Atlanta Braves won the World Series last season with a .293 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot. That was the lowest in the National League.

Gillick's Blue Jays won two World Series with Devon White, a leadoff man whose on-base percentage was never higher than .342 in five seasons with Toronto. And manager Davey Johnson's Reds won the NL Central last season with a leadoff rotation of Thomas Howard, Darren Lewis and Jerome Walton.

It's probably a stretch to say that a gamer like Phillips might have disrupted the Orioles' chemistry -- in many ways, he's precisely the kind of player the Orioles need. But Anderson is an important part of this team. So was Devereaux for six seasons. These things matter.

The addition of Phillips would have resulted in the Orioles' changing three of their first four hitters from last July, and all four from two years ago. That's a ringing -- and deserved -- indictment of their offense. But Devereaux still may be a better fit.

Whatever, the real intrigue right now is in the Dominican, where the two Cuban pitchers are playing winter ball. First baseman

TC Rafael Palmeiro, a Cuban native, helped the Orioles with their initial recruiting. The Braves may be America's Team. But how does Cuba's Team sound?

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