Playing to win now may turn into trade-off in long run

August 28, 1996|By John Eisenberg

The Orioles have won 19 of their past 28 games, and Peter Angelos is looking smart.

His club is leading the wild-card race and creeping up on the Yankees in the AL East.

It probably wouldn't even have contended for the playoffs had Angelos not overruled general manager Pat Gillick and vetoed several trades late last month.

Bobby Bonilla and David Wells would be elsewhere and Camden Yards would be rife with Ravens fever instead of filled with cheers.

Saved by the boss!

But does that mean Angelos was right, period, case closed?

Not necessarily.

The true merits of midseason decisions -- trades made and not made -- often aren't known for several years, until all the facts are in.

We won't know whether Angelos was right until we weigh what the Orioles do this season against the talent of the prospects they turned down.

If the Orioles wind up not making the playoffs this year, or if they get to the playoffs and lose quietly, you could argue that they would have been better off dealing for the prospects Gillick had lined up.

Of course, that lesson would be apparent only in hindsight, which isn't fair to Angelos. He was the one who had to make the call when the trades were on the table, and he chose to try to win now, which was fine. It wasn't as if he was shortchanging the fans.

That the Orioles are now contemplating dealing their own prospects for Denny Neagle and Kevin Seitzer only reaffirms Angelos' commitment to winning.

But is the franchise best served in the long run by playing so hard to win in a year when several other AL teams appear superior?

We don't know yet, and won't know for a while. There are cautionary tales all over the place.

The Red Sox traded Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling to the Orioles in 1988 for Mike Boddicker, and the trade looked good when Boddicker helped the Sox win a division title. But the Sox were swept out of the AL playoffs by Oakland, Boddicker faded away and Anderson and Schilling became stars.

Was that sniff of the postseason worth it to the Sox considering the talent they gave up?

Debatable.

Making the playoffs gives your franchise a lasting emotional boost, but giving up young talent always undermines your chances of returning to the postseason.

In 1987, the Tigers gave up a prospect named John Smoltz for veteran Doyle Alexander, who pitched the Tigers to the AL East title. Good trade? Debatable. The Tigers lost to the Twins in the AL playoffs and went into a decline. They could have rebuilt around Smoltz.

Ask a roomful of baseball executives about this trade-off of pros and cons, and you get a mixed response; some would accept the decline to experience the thrill of success, and others would turn down the immediate gratification to build a better future.

In this case, it will be almost impossible to second-guess Angelos if the Orioles wind up qualifying for the playoffs this year, even if the prospects he turned down wind up becoming All-Stars.

The franchise and the fans need the emotional boost after 13 years of sitting out the postseason.

Angelos, as a Baltimore lifer, probably understands that better than Gillick.

With that in mind, you could argue that Angelos' decision to sacrifice the future would be worth it even if the Orioles just come close to making the playoffs, or, say, if they get there and get blown out.

With Camden Yards full almost every night, the Orioles desperately need to give something back. They're also desperate to make headlines now that they have to compete for attention with an NFL team.

On the other hand, how much sense does it make to disdain the future in a year when the Indians and Rangers appear to have relegated the Orioles to second-tier status?

It isn't sound baseball management to play to win now if your chances of making the World Series are relatively small.

Gillick, as a baseball lifer, probably understands that concept better than Angelos.

The fact is there are several prospects out there whom the Orioles could have traded for, and didn't, and we won't know whether the Orioles were smart until we see those prospects develop.

The names to watch? A catcher for the Mariners, Chris Widger. A pitcher for the Indians, Alan Embree. An outfielder with the Reds, Steve Gibralter.

Embree and Widger were available in trades for Wells; the Orioles could have had one, though not both.

Gibralter was available for Bobby Bonilla.

Will the Orioles regret not acquiring these players? It depends whether the Orioles make the playoffs, how they fare in the playoffs if they qualify, and how the prospects develop.

Things certainly look good for Angelos right now.

The Orioles are on a roll, they have only nine games left against teams with winning records and the White Sox's bullpen is in tatters.

It could well turn out that Angelos' overrule of Gillick provides the basis for a surprising sprint to the playoffs.

The owner would come out looking plenty smart.

But as the Red Sox and Tigers learned in the '80s, judging these matters is never quite as simple as it looks.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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