Aging group deserves one last hurrah

October 17, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

So, what do the Orioles do now?

That's easy.

They try again.

They re-sign Brady Anderson and attempt to re-sign Randy Myers. They try to find a No. 2 starting pitcher to slot between Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson. They decide on a designated hitter.

It's not as if they have much choice.

They've got one more shot to reach the World Series with this team of aging veterans, one more shot before the contracts of many of their players expire.

It's now-or-never in '98.

The last hurrah.

"Probably," general manager Pat Gillick said yesterday. "It's a tremendous opportunity."

Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and B. J. Surhoff will be in the final year of their contracts. So will Erickson, Jimmy Key and half the bullpen.

And, oh yes, Davey Johnson.

All the manager has done is lead his team to back-to-back ALCS appearances, but owner Peter Angelos isn't likely to give him a contract extension.

"I'm not going to get into that," Angelos said when asked about Johnson on Wednesday night. "Why does everybody always want to stir things up?"

Gee, let's think.

Maybe because the status of Angelos' manager is uncertain every October?

Frankly, Johnson is the least of the issues facing Angelos, or should be. The bigger question is the payroll. How much will Angelos allow it to grow?

If the Orioles re-sign Anderson and Myers, the payroll could zoom past $60 million. At that point, Angelos might consider trading Palmeiro or Alomar.

Can the Orioles afford to keep everyone?

"Sitting here right now, I'd say, 'Yeah,' " Gillick said. "I'm not sure that will be the case a week from now."

Gillick will know only after the Orioles determine their budget. It usually isn't a strict budget, but how much more can Angelos be expected to spend?

The free-agent market for pitchers is thin. A trade might be the best way to acquire the No. 2 starter that Gillick said that the Orioles need "for sure."

Gillick indicated that his preference is to keep the Orioles' nucleus intact, but he didn't rule out entertaining offers for Palmeiro, who has a limited no-trade clause, or even Alomar.

Both came to the Orioles as free agents, and are likely to leave for the highest bidder after next season rather than accept new deals below market value.

Homegrown stars like Mussina and Cal Ripken are willing to make such sacrifices to remain in Baltimore. Anderson, an Oriole since 1988, is expected to do the same.

Palmeiro and Alomar won't necessarily show the same loyalty, but they're critical parts of the team, and the Orioles need them to make one last run.

Specifically, they need Palmeiro to get over himself after going 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position and 3-for-20 with men on base in the postseason.

They also need Alomar to get back in the proper mood. Granted, he was injured much of the season. But he frustrated the Orioles by rehabilitating at his own pace, and at times barely seemed part of the team.

There's nothing like the lure of free-agent dollars to motivate players who need to get out of funks.

The time to start over is after next season, when the makeup of the team is almost certain to change dramatically, anyway.

Indeed, that might be the best reason of all for Angelos to expand the payroll yet again. He'll almost certainly be able to retrench in 1999.

Either that, or enter a 35-and-over league.

The average age of the Orioles' final ALCS lineup was 33. Alomar, the youngest regular, will be 30 on Feb. 5.

Will the Orioles win the World Series next season?

Or will they merely start to grow old?

If it's the latter, the competitive cycle will have run its course, with the team failing to reach its ultimate goal. Angelos then could justify sweeping changes, such as firing his manager.

A crash seems unlikely, given Angelos' willingness to spend. Still, it's not out of the question that the Orioles of the late '90s could resemble the Orioles of the late '80s.

Few prospects are close to making an impact.

And the major-leaguers aren't getting any younger.

So many Orioles veterans are in top condition, age might be less of a consideration than it is for other teams. Indeed, three of their best players in the postseason were Anderson, 33, Ripken, 37, and Mike Bordick, 32.

On the other hand, who knows when a player will start to decline?

Palmeiro, 33, finished with 38 homers and 110 RBIs, but his .254 batting average was the lowest of his career over a full season. His 109 strikeouts were a career high. His 24 doubles were his fewest since 1989.

Is he on the downside?

"I don't think so," Gillick said.

Gillick has to believe that, because there won't be much of a trade market for a $6 million first baseman entering the final year of his contract -- especially when Palmeiro can veto trades to eight teams of his choice.

They're all in this together -- the players, the manager, the front office, the owner. They need to grow stronger from this defeat. They need to try again. They need to take one more shot.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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