Gillick takes it from the top Winning now: GM Pat Gillick, who prefers to build teams by developing prospects, has instead made moves to enable the veteran Orioles to contend in 1996.

April 01, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Pat Gillick established his reputation as one of the best executives in baseball by building the Toronto Blue Jays, an expansion team in 1977, into world champions. But the challenge he faced when he became general manager of the Orioles a little more than four months ago was different from any he encountered in Toronto.

The Blue Jays were built from the bottom up; a deep farm system became the foundation for those championship teams. As the Orioles prepare to open the 1996 season against the Kansas City Royals, the Orioles organization is a polar opposite of those Blue Jays prototypes.

The Orioles, as Gillick acknowledged, are a team depending on an aging nucleus. Shortstop Cal Ripken turns 36 this summer, designated hitter Bobby Bonilla is 33, outfielder Brady Anderson is 32, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and catcher Chris Hoiles are 31.

When he was hired last November, Gillick knew, also, that behind those older players is a farm system lacking in prospects in Double-A and Triple-A. Last summer, the Orioles and Blue Jays talked about a possible trade involving Toronto outfielder Joe Carter, and Gillick had studied the Orioles farm system, reading scouting reports. The bulk of the best prospects, he learned, are in Single-A or in rookie leagues, players such as pitcher Chris Fussell, 19, and shortstop Eddy Martinez, 18.

Gillick assumed a unique burden when he took over the Orioles. He must try to win within the two- or three-year window of peak productivity that remains for several members of that nucleus, and he must try to do this while simultaneously re-stocking the farm system. For many organizations, that's an either/or proposition.

Gillick has had to do what he rarely did in Toronto -- rely on free-agent acquisitions as stopgaps until the farm system is again producing major-league players on a regular basis.

Within two months of taking over the Orioles, Gillick signed All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar; a new closer, Randy Myers; B. J. Surhoff, who won the third base job this spring; reliever Roger McDowell; and outfielder Mike Devereaux.

He also traded for two left-handed pitchers -- the Cincinnati Reds' David Wells and the Atlanta Braves' Kent Mercker -- unloaded by their respective teams for financial reasons. Gillick's forte is player development, but the moves made to improve the major-league team have been drawn directly from the rent-a-player manual. Alomar, Mercker and Tony Tarasco (acquired this spring) are relatively young, but the others are over 30.

"It's a different situation for me," Gillick said. "I really don't care for the free-agent market. I prefer getting involved with players on a more personal basis, getting to know them, watching them develop.

"With free agents, everybody's got their best foot forward. You gather as much information as you can possibly get. . . ."

But the free-agent market is high-risk. The Chicago Cubs allowed Myers to leave, in part, because they were concerned about whether he wore down physically in the second half of last season. Two years ago, Devereaux batted .203 for the Orioles. Surhoff is playing a position he didn't play at all in '95. Wells, 32, won a total of 23 games from 1992 to 1994 before winning 16 last year.

"If you make a mistake on a kid in the farm system," Gillick said, "nobody will hear about that. But if you make a mistake [on a big-money acquisition], that's a different story."

Nevertheless, Gillick said he likes the alterations made to the team during the off-season. "We've added three left-handed pitchers in Mercker, Wells and Randy [Myers]," Gillick said, "an All-Star second baseman in Alomar, good players in Surhoff and Devereaux. Overall, we did fairly well."

New Orioles manager Davey Johnson agrees. After last season, he said, the Orioles had an unusual "number of holes that needed to be filled for a contending team" -- third base, second base, a couple of spots in the rotation, more in the bullpen. I really think Pat's done an outstanding job pulling this together."

Gillick pulled a contender together quickly, and with good reason. The time for Ripken, Anderson, Hoiles, Wells, Myers, Surhoff, Bonilla, all into their 30s, to contend for a championship is now.

If they do, that buys time for the farm system, which may not bounce back for two years. "It might take longer than that," Gillick said. "We've got prospects, but I don't think we've got what we're really looking for. . . . The farm system isn't as deep as it should be."

Former No. 1 pick Jay Powell is gone, Gillick notes, traded to the Florida Marlins for Bret Barberie after the 1994 season. Outfielder Alex Ochoa is gone, traded to the New York Mets for Bonilla last year. Other prospects were traded for Wells and Mercker -- outfielder Curtis Goodwin and pitcher Rachaad Stewart -- part of the cost of trying to win now.

There are potential obstacles for the Orioles this year, depth being one of them.

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