O's hoping make-over puts beautiful face on season

April 01, 1997|By John Eisenberg

Gillick's Gamble.

That's the story of the Orioles' 1997 season.

Coming off a year in which the club accomplished more than it had in any year since Cal Ripken was a pup, general manager Pat Gillick oversaw a fairly sizable make-over during the off-season.

Will the Orioles benefit from having more dependable pitching, better defense and less power?

There are no guarantees, particularly in a division that includes the defending World Series champions, the New York Yankees, and one of baseball's most improved teams, the Toronto Blue Jays.

It was the Orioles' inability to beat the Yankees last season that persuaded Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone to reconfigure the team.

Standing in the clubhouse after the Yankees had beaten the Orioles in the American League Championship Series last October, Malone uttered the words that foretold what would happen in the coming months: "We had the better players, but they had the better team."

In other words, the Yankees were less selfish, more balanced and better at situational hitting.

Goodbye, Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray and Todd Zeile, who combined for 75 home runs in '96.

Hello, Mike Bordick and Eric Davis, embodying Gillick's attempt to give the club more speed, better defense and the ability to create runs by means other than sheer power.

The changes make sense in theory and adhere to the throwback Orioles tradition of trying to win with pitching and defense, but let's not forget that this was a pretty good club at the end of last season.

They did lose to the Yankees in the ALCS, but they also won 37 of their last 59 regular-season games and played superbly in knocking out the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the AL playoffs.

That's a team that needed a make-over?

Only when you have one of baseball's highest payrolls and a "World Series or bust" mentality that starts at the top, with owner Peter Angelos.

Granted, some of the changes were dictated by economics; Davis cost about $20 million less than Bonilla, for instance.

Still, Gillick was going to take the club in the direction he wanted, regardless of economics.

Thus, the No. 1 question: Was it wise to tinker with an offense that set a major-league homer record and did so much damage in 1996?

Not everyone is sure. Though not critical of the front office's maneuvering, Cal Ripken objected to the notion that the offense was too reliant on homers last season.

"Who cares how you score runs as long as you score them?" Ripken said. "We scored a lot last year."

They probably won't score as many this year.

But here's the thing: They should still score a lot, certainly more than most teams.

Even though they sacrificed power, the Orioles still have seven players who hit at least 20 homers in '96. Davis, replacing Bonilla in right field, had only two fewer homers than Bonilla last year.

"You never know how things are going to work out," Davis said as spring training ended late last week, "but I think we still have a ton of power. I'd be shocked if that's a problem for us this year."

After a spring with his new team, Davis compares the '97 Orioles to the 1990 Reds he played for -- a World Series winner.

"It's absolutely one of the best teams I have played on," he said. "I look around me, and I see speed, solid pitching, a great bullpen. And I don't mean it's potentially a great team, because potential implies that these are people who haven't proven themselves. I see great ability. People with track records. People who have done it."

If Davis is right and the offense can produce at anywhere close to last year's rate, Gillick's Gamble will pay off. Because there is little doubt that the pitching and defense are improved.

Bordick, Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar constitute the best defensive infield in the American League. In the outfield, Davis is a major improvement over Bonilla, and Anderson is superb in center.

As for the pitching, the bullpen is particularly deep and nasty with Randy Myers, Alan Mills, Arthur Rhodes, Jesse Orosco, Terry Mathews and Armando Benitez.

"It reminds me of the [1990] Reds bullpen with Norm Charlton, Myers and Rob Dibble," Davis said.

The starting rotation is more suspect after Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key -- Scott Erickson and Shawn Boskie are erratic, and Rocky Coppinger is young. Injuries to Mussina to Coppinger won't help. But whose rotation isn't suspect these days?

Actually, Toronto's isn't, not with Roger Clemens, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen. The Yankees' rotation is strong, too, with David Cone, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Dwight Gooden and a rejuvenated Kenny Rogers.

The Orioles are in for a major fight at the top of the AL East.

They'll try to win it with more speed, defense, pitching and versatility than a year ago.

They'll try to win it with a team that Gillick has reconfigured pTC despite last year's success, gambling that he could do better.

It was a gamble worth taking, a gamble Gillick seemingly has minimized with shrewd pickups such as Bordick and Davis.

But it's a gamble, nonetheless.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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