Johnson attracted to O's new look Manager is advocate of effort to emphasize brains over brawn

December 20, 1996|By Buster Olney and Jason LaCanfora | Buster Olney and Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Even as the Orioles drove to their first playoff appearance in 13 years this fall, you got the feeling manager Davey Johnson wasn't deriving much satisfaction from the accomplishment.

He joked about how he had nothing to do, other than pick a lineup and change pitchers. Johnson saw the Orioles as a powerful, artless team -- maybe the way a car connoisseur would view a monster truck.

But the '96 Orioles have been stripped down, rebuilt, streamlined into something much more attractive to Johnson and general manager Pat Gillick.

The Orioles aren't going to break their single-season record for home runs next year. They may have trouble matching their offensive production of nearly six runs per game. Their starting -- pitching isn't much better than it was in '96; Gillick is intent on adding another left-hander, someone like Texas Rangers left-hander Darren Oliver (although that probably isn't going to happen).

But the 1997 Orioles will be vastly superior on defense, with Gold Glove candidates at second (Roberto Alomar), shortstop (Mike Bordick) and third base (Cal Ripken), and Eric Davis replacing Bobby Bonilla in the outfield. They will have more team speed, with the addition of Davis, Bordick and Jerome Walton and the subtraction of Bonilla and Eddie Murray.

The team will be better fundamentally, Gillick and Johnson say they believe, a team more capable of scoring without hitting homers.

The bullpen of the '97 Orioles will be much deeper than that of the team that started the '96 season, bolstered by the physical recoveries of Armando Benitez, Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills and the addition of Terry Mathews.

The bench will be better. Instead of carrying three utility players who never play (Jeff Huson, Bill Ripken and Manny Alexander), Johnson will have Walton, and the likes of Jeffrey Hammonds, Tony Tarasco and Kelly Gruber fighting for jobs.

Yes, Johnson likes this team.

A lot.

"Anytime you can add some guys that can run and can catch it, you're going to help your pitching staff," he said. "I have nothing against guys who can hit out of the ballpark. But when you're up against a tough pitcher, and he's not going to make a mistake, you'd like to have the opportunity to manufacture runs.

"We didn't do a lot of running last year. A lot of times we didn't even start runners on 3-2 counts, and that's always been a no-brainer with me."

Johnson said the infield defense could be "as good, or even better" than the Orioles' teams that he played for, with Brooks Robinson at third, Mark Belanger at short and Johnson at second, all Gold Glove winners.

"I like Cal at any position," said Johnson. "He's got the surest hands I've seen in a long time, an accurate arm, and Bordick is the same way. He's been among the leaders in fielding [percentage] several times, and that's something playing on a grass infield. Alomar's defense speaks for itself, and Palmeiro makes it look easy at first.

"I tell you what, I'm excited."

There are plenty of potential roadblocks for the Orioles, as there are for every team. Benitez, Mills and Rhodes must stay healthy. Davis must provide at least a viable force in the lineup, to keep opposing managers from continually beating the Orioles with left-handed relievers.

Jimmy Key must pitch effectively, Scott Erickson must be consistent, Mike Mussina must pitch like an ace.

Brady Anderson's production was a surprise in '96, and now the Orioles are counting on him to play a major role in '97.

There's no telling how Alomar will react to the constant abuse he's sure to get from fans in other cities next year, in the aftermath of his suspension for spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck. The Orioles again must attempt to overcome a roster overhaul, and gel, as they did in the final two months of '96.

4 But baseball insiders like the Orioles' chances.

Detroit Tigers general manager Randy Smith: "The infield is tremendous. It might be a little bold to say it, but it might be one of the best [defenses] in the history of the game. Heck, they were in the playoffs a year ago, I think they've improved themselves.

"I think everybody better in the division is better except for one team [the Yankees]. Probably right now, I'd pick Baltimore, [then] Toronto."

Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona, formerly a coach in the AL: "They're going into spring training with a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Some of the problems they have, we'd love to have."

Dave Jauss, a first base coach with the Boston Red Sox and a former minor-league coordinator with the Orioles: "They played well at the end of last year -- they were a good team, a couple of outs from being right there -- and they've made some good moves.

"They've helped themselves in the bullpen, and that's probably going to carry over. They've probably lost a little bit of pop in the lineup, and they're hoping that Davis makes up for that."

ESPN analyst Peter Gammons said the two best teams in the AL are the Orioles and Blue Jays, with the Yankees "clearly" the third-best team.

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