Even best-laid baseball plans can suffer a blueprint smudge

February 26, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles can hire a winning manager, upgrade their front office, spend millions on talent and transform themselves into a contender, but they can't escape the threat of the Sid Factor.

It lurks inside every team, threatening to disrupt plans, destroy reputations and disappoint fans.

This year's Orioles are flirting with it in the bullpen and rotation, at third base and on the bench.

What is it? It's the part of a ballclub's blueprint that doesn't produce as anticipated. The part where players are counted on to deliver and don't.

It's called the Sid Factor in honor of former Oriole Sid Fernandez, who was given a featured role in the rotation after signing a $9 million contract, then won all of six games before accepting the club's buyout offer of cash and pizzas.

If you haven't heard of the Sid Factor before, don't worry, I just made up the name. But I didn't make up the concept of failed expectations, which is as old as baseball itself.

Even on a team as promising as the Orioles this year, there are danger zones. Places where the logic behind the moves is somewhat shaky.

Mind you, the Orioles have fewer such spots than most teams after general manager Pat Gillick's impressive overhaul. Still, the possibility of the Sid Factor exists on every team. The world is never perfect.

Sid is always lurking!

In the bullpen, for instance, the Orioles are counting on Jesse Orosco. He was terrific last season, allowing just 17 of 66 inherited runners to score and limiting opponents to a .169 average. But he had a 5.08 ERA the year before. Counting on a repeat performance from him, at age 38, is optimistic.

New setup man Roger McDowell, 35, was 7-4 for Texas in '95, but had a 4.02 ERA. Closer Randy Myers had a 5.61 ERA after the All-Star break. These are proven, veteran pitchers, but it's safe to say that the bullpen comes with Sid Factor warning lights this year.

(Remember, the suggestion isn't that these players are destined to explode Sid-like. But this is where the club's blueprint looks most vulnerable.)

The starting rotation, where the Sid Factor was particularly active last season, also is a possibility again despite TC much-hyped rewiring.

It is a rotation that could soar, but, outside of ace Mike Mussina, also crash.

Jimmy Haynes, penciled in as the No. 5 starter, has four major-league starts, all at the end of '95. Yes, they were impressive. But so were Armando Benitez's 10 innings at the end of '94, and look what happened to him. Maybe Haynes is ready. Maybe.

Kent Mercker, the No. 4 starter, looks like a fine pickup, an indisputably talented right-hander who was missing only a chance to pitch regularly in Atlanta. But he had a 4.15 ERA last year and has never thrown more than 143 innings in a season. With 31 career wins, he has a lot to prove.

Scott Erickson, the No. 3 starter, was 9-4 for the Orioles last season after his trade from Minnesota and had a 1.47 ERA in five September starts. But he was a 30-game loser in '93 and '94 before coming to Baltimore. Let's see if he holds up.

David Wells is a candidate for the Sid Factor on body type alone (similarly orbed), but it's doubtful he'll crash. He won 16 games last year. He is in his contract year. He'll come up, uh, big.

Still, pitching is where the Orioles are most likely to experience the Sid Factor. Their everyday lineup is basically a sure thing. Just too good to fail.

The first five batters alone -- Brady Anderson, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and Cal Ripken -- will carry the team a long way.

Not that the Sid Factor isn't lurking on the lineup card, too.

The Orioles had anticipated that B. J. Surhoff would start at third base. Sounds fine. Surhoff is a late-blooming star who can play numerous positions. But he didn't play third last year in Milwaukee. He has never played a full season at third. And he looks uncomfortable there this spring.

"Bonilla looks more natural [at third]," manager Davey Johnson said. "But talk to me in two weeks."

Basically, the Orioles don't have a third baseman. Surhoff and Bonilla are force fits, more comfortable at other positions. Infield backups Bill Ripken, Jeff Huson and Manny Alexander are middle infielders at heart.

It's not a huge problem considering the strength of the rest of the infield defense, but it's a weakness in the Orioles' blueprint.

So is the bench. Ripken, Huson, Mark Smith, Gregg Zaun, Kim Bartee, maybe Sherman Obando -- will opposing managers fear any of them?

Of course, almost any American League team other than the Indians and Yankees would gladly trade Sid Factor potential with the Orioles.

The Orioles are sounder than most teams, as they should be considering their high price tag.

But the Sid Factor excludes no team.

Remember that.

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