Minor strikes major chord in orchestration of future

March 11, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

His name is Minor. His impact could be major.

General manager Pat Gillick said yesterday that Ryan Minor might be ready by next season, forcing a dramatic restructuring of the Orioles' infield.

Minor to third base. Cal Ripken to first.

Rafael Palmeiro?

Gone.

That's right, the Orioles might not even want Palmeiro to do "a Brady," and accept millions less as a free agent to stay in Baltimore.

The promotion of Minor would make far more economic sense, and for the first time, club officials are saying it might make good baseball sense, too.

Palmeiro would be in jeopardy if Ripken balked at changing position for the second time in three years because Minor also could play first base.

The question is, can Minor be ready?

"Yeah," Gillick said yesterday. "Why not?"

Well, he hasn't even played at Double-A.

"I didn't know there was anything that said he had to play at Double-A," Gillick said.

No, there isn't, but Minor likely will open the season at that level. Gillick, however, said he could advance to Triple-A by midsummer and to Baltimore by 1999.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility," Gillick said.

OK, then, would he play third base or first?

Gillick laughed, knowing the implications of that question.

"He's multitalented," Gillick said.

Indeed, Minor is rapidly emerging as a pivotal figure for an organization that hasn't developed an impact position player since, well, Ripken.

The former basketball star at Oklahoma still might be two years away, but his potential arrival next season raises a number of long-term questions:

Would the Orioles use the money saved on Palmeiro to re-sign Roberto Alomar, target another free agent such as Mike Piazza, or do both?

Would Ripken resist moving to first after making the transition to third, forcing Minor to open his career at a less comfortable position?

Would the Orioles' offense be compromised with below-average production at first, shortstop and third, at least until Minor adjusts?

Then there are the short-term questions:

Would Palmeiro descend into a season-long funk knowing the Orioles might not even make a serious bid for him?

And if club officials hold that fear, would they push to trade Palmeiro for Boston's Mo Vaughn -- another potential free agent -- before Opening Day?

Such a deal still seems unlikely -- the Red Sox would prefer Vaughn to play the heavy by departing, rather than do the dirty work themselves.

Whatever, for a player with only one full season of professional experience, Minor is a 6-foot-7 domino waiting to fall.

"If he puts up numbers, we're going to have create a place on the club for him," Gillick said.

"I don't know who'll be affected. It could be Palmeiro. It could be Ripken. It could be [Harold] Baines. I don't know."

Ideally, Gillick said, the Orioles would sign all their free agents and develop Minor slowly, perhaps giving him 250 at-bats his rookie season.

But the Orioles can't keep all their free agents. Their payroll this season is $68.7 million. Minor would provide instant salary relief.

"We are concerned about the cost of the product we put on the field," Gillick said. "It does impact the cost of tickets on the fans. That's a concern of everyone in the organization, from ownership right through.

"We all know the cost of professional sports is getting out of hand. In our situation, probably $1 million wouldn't make a difference. But if you've got a chance to save $7 million-$8 million, that's trying to head in the right direction."

Palmeiro, 33, might view those words as a negotiating ploy. But he would become expendable even if Minor progressed in more typical fashion -- Double-A this season, Triple-A the next.

Besides, the Orioles can't be encouraged about their chances of keeping their first baseman, who has said that if he does not sign an extension by the end of spring training, "it's not going to get done."

Club officials aren't likely to offer him more than a three-year contract, especially now with Minor in the picture. Palmeiro, however, probably would want five.

That's what Brady Anderson got, and Palmeiro is eight months younger. The difference is, Anderson is practically home-grown, immensely popular and a favorite of owner Peter Angelos.

Palmeiro isn't exactly an outcast -- Angelos chose him over Will Clark, and he has led the club in RBIs four straight years while becoming the first Oriole to produce three straight seasons of 30 or more homers.

Still, he is coming off a disappointing postseason, and he rankled club officials by saying, "I'm not doing a Brady." All things considered, Angelos probably would prefer to keep Alomar, who just turned 30.

But back to Minor.

"With the production he had last year in A ball and what he's accomplished down here, coupled with his athleticism and ability, everything points to him being on the fast track to Baltimore," assistant GM Kevin Malone said.

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