Free agency costing O's in standings, too?

May 02, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Thirteen Orioles are eligible for free agency, and assistant general manager Kevin Malone says that the uncertainty surrounding those players might be affecting the club's performance.

Scary?

It could get even scarier if the Orioles don't make a quick recovery, and it appears they might be on their way now that they've won two straight games for the first time in 2 1/2 weeks.

Still, players don't know if they'll be back. Malone and general manager Pat Gillick don't know if they'll be back. Yet they're all supposedly pulling toward one goal.

That goal is the World Series, and it would be quite an achievement for a lame-duck team with a lame-duck front office, a fragile, combustible mix held together only by success.

If the Orioles flounder, the foundation might crumble, with certain players becoming more concerned with individual pursuits.

And if Gillick and Malone then try to trade veterans, as they did two years ago, owner Peter Angelos could again dismiss the advice, knowing he soon might hire new executives.

Davey Johnson guided the Orioles to the wild card under somewhat similar circumstances in 1996. But now the manager is Ray Miller, and no one knows if he's capable of pulling off such a feat.

To Malone, the picture already is disturbing, and not simply because his own future is undecided. The Orioles have performed so sluggishly, he and other club officials now think the large number of free agents might be a detriment.

"That thought has crossed our minds," Malone said yesterday. "The way we initially evaluated it, we thought it should be a positive. Normally, most players use upcoming free agency as a motivator, as an incentive to perform and produce and warrant a nice contract for the following year or years.

"You'd have to look at each player individually. As a group, it does maybe have an unsettling effect. I don't think it should be like that. It should be that every year you've got to prove yourself and perform. I guess it would just depend on the mental toughness and personality of each individual."

Even then, it's difficult to identify which players are being affected -- Rafael Palmeiro certainly looked at ease last night, hitting a go-ahead, two-run homer in the sixth inning, and an RBI single off left-hander Eddie Guardado in the seventh.

In fact, Miller and several players disagree with Malone's premise, saying there is no correlation between the team's performance and the players' contract statuses, and citing the injuries to Mike Mussina and Brady Anderson as the principal reason for the club's 4-10 slide.

"I don't see it," Miller said. "I'm not saying it ain't there, but I certainly don't see it. I don't see anyone coming in here and complaining that they're not getting a chance, that this is my free-agent year.

"If most of these guys were not already extraordinarily wealthy people, it probably would be a bigger thing. For the most part, the big-name guys are pretty well-off."

The question isn't effort -- Miller said the team has continued to work hard. He did, however, meet with several players in Anaheim, saying, "guys weren't focused on what was going on."

And yet, none of the potential free agents is slumping.

Palmeiro leads the team in homers and RBIs. B.J. Surhoff is batting .304. Jimmy Key and Scott Erickson have combined for seven wins. Roberto Alomar is batting .200 left-handed, but .378 from the right side.

"I think Kevin said it right -- everyone handles things differently," Key said. "Some guys are more relaxed when they're under contract. Some guys perform better when they're not. But I don't think it's going to affect the club as a whole."

Most of the Orioles' free agents understand the process -- they've been through it before. They'll get their money. They always get their money. So, really, what's the problem?

dTC Well, Gillick acknowledged last week that Alomar might be distracted, but cited the harsh treatment that the All-Star second baseman continues to receive in visiting parks, not his pending free agency.

Palmeiro seems less of an issue -- he's on a 133-RBI pace, and batting .404 in his last 14 games. He also leads the league with 22 walks, so it's not as if he's simply expanding his strike zone in an attempt to improve his statistics.

On the flip side, the Gold Glove first baseman also has made several base running and fielding mistakes, an indication that his concentration might be waning at times.

"Everyone is going to make mistakes," Palmeiro said. "When a player makes a mistake as a free agent, that's the excuse everyone is going to use. That has nothing to do with it. The last thing on my mind is what is going to happen in November."

Fair enough, but the questions will only intensify if the Orioles again falter. The entire organization is at a crossroads, and even with the safety net of the wild card, it's possible to envision the team coming apart.

Most of their players under long-term contract are aging veterans. The farm system is at least two years away from providing replacements. The starting pitching -- the team's saving grace -- was devastated by a wart.

Gillick? It's becoming difficult to envision his remaining GM. He doesn't negotiate with free agents during the season. He doesn't award pitchers five-year contracts. But here are the Orioles, trying to sign Erickson to such a deal.

Malone? He's now the one negotiating with the free agents, with Angelos tied up by his law practice. He could be the scapegoat if the deals collapse. He could be the next GM. No one knows.

Lame-duck team. Lame-duck front office.

Much to overcome.

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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