Orioles face mound of questions Starting pitching likely key in drive to overtake Yankees

Second-half outlook

July 11, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

They are a confusing bunch, the Orioles. They have the major leagues' home run leader, three All-Stars, an ace on his way to 20 wins, five or six players en route to 100 RBIs, a closer who should get 30 to 35 saves, and a strong rookie pitcher.

But they are losing ground. Little by little, bit by bit, the New York Yankees are pulling away and the Orioles are not responding, tangled in their web of inconsistent play and clubhouse unhappiness.

Tied for first place on May 29, the Orioles were two games out June 9, four games behind two weeks later, and now stand six games back.

As they try to make up that ground, here are 10 questions the Orioles face in the second half:

1. Will the starting pitching be consistent?

The starters combined for a 2.55 ERA in the first 13 games, and the Orioles went 11-2. The rotation crumbled for two months, and the Orioles lived and died with their offense. But the starters have recovered, allowing five runs or more in three of the Orioles' past 22 games. The Orioles are 6-0 in games started by Rocky Coppinger, and Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson have pitched well for about a month now. The critical part is left-hander David Wells, who has been either very good or very bad in his first 17 starts. They desperately need him to step up.

Chances of the rotation holding together for the second half (scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being absolute certainty): 6.

2. Will changes be made?

One way or the other, look for general manager Pat Gillick to make moves. Deals to augment the club seem imminent, with Gillick searching for a catcher (perhaps the Philadelphia Phillies' Benito Santiago) and outfield help (the Cleveland Indians' Jeromy Burnitz).

But suppose, for argument's sake, that the Yankees were to take three of four or sweep the Orioles in the four-game series that starts today. Suppose the Orioles fall out of the American League East race, and show no signs of shaking out of their three-month funk. Then Gillick could tear apart this team in an effort to rebuild for the future. Bobby Bonilla, Wells -- and perhaps Brady Anderson, who has a $4 million option for 1997 -- could be dangled as trade bait, as Gillick tries to make this team younger.

Chances Gillick will make changes: 10.

3. Will the relationship between manager Davey Johnson and his players improve?

That depends entirely on whether the Orioles win. If they go on to win the division and make an impact in the postseason, the players could forgive Johnson for his alleged transgressions. If they lose, many players always will believe that Johnson's handling of Bonilla, Cal Ripken, et cetera, contributed to the team's decline.

Chances that the gap between Johnson and the players will be bridged: 4.

4. Will the Yankees collapse?

The Orioles are six games behind and unless they cut into the deficit this weekend, they eventually will need some help to catch the Yankees. New York would have to go into a serious slide. But given all they've been through already, that doesn't appear likely. The Yankees have won without David Cone, won without consistent offense from Ruben Sierra, won despite numerous injuries. The one player they absolutely could not afford to lose is center fielder Bernie Williams, who is to the Yankees what Mo Vaughn was to the Red Sox last year.

Chances the Yankees will fall apart: 3

5. What is going to happen to Manny Alexander?

All indications are the Orioles will keep him, and Johnson reiterated two weeks ago that Alexander will play -- and play shortstop -- if the team falls out of contention. Alexander will be at a serious disadvantage, of course, having rotted on the bench for the past three months.

Chances that Alexander will end the season as the Orioles' everyday shortstop: 6.

6. Will Brady Anderson reach Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 homers?

Anderson hit 15 homers in his first 29 games, and three games later, Roberto Alomar was dropped to the No. 3 spot in the order. Anderson kept on hitting homers, bashing 11 in his next 41 games. Anderson then was dropped from first to second in the lineup, and still hit homers, four in his last eight games before the All-Star break. Will he do it? Probably not. He'd have to hit 31 homers in 77 games to tie Maris. But don't write him off.

Chances that Anderson's sideburns will fall out as he closes in on Maris: 0.

7. What will happen to Chris Hoiles?

The Orioles passed their struggling catcher through waivers, hoping someone would take him. The next step is replacing him, trading for another catcher (or perhaps trying Cesar Devarez, who is hitting almost .300 at Triple-A Rochester). After that, the Orioles, in a last attempt to get something out of the five-year contract, may try him at designated hitter.

Chances of Hoiles being replaced as the everyday catcher by season's end: 9.

8. What is the future of Jeffrey Hammonds?

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