Wild card hooks O's to veterans

May 31, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Now what?

Last night's 10-8 loss aside, the Orioles are back in the wild-card race, maybe even to stay.

Should they continue their attempts to trade potential free agents like Roberto Alomar or Rafael Palmeiro?

Or should they stay the course and make one last postseason push with this team of aging veterans?

The ideal solution would be to get both younger and better, improving the Orioles not just for this season, but also beyond.

Good luck.

The Orioles have bought themselves time with their sudden resurgence. But come July, the organization still could face a major crossroads.

Indeed, with Scott Kamieniecki joining Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key on the disabled list, the chances of mounting a serious World Series bid remain exceedingly slim.

The Orioles don't have enough to trade for Randy Johnson or Carlos Perez. Bobby Munoz isn't the answer. Richie Lewis, tomorrow's likely replacement for Kamieniecki -- and the team's 10th starting pitcher this season -- probably won't be, either.

Sidney Ponson, another pitcher who started the season at Triple-A, worked in place of the suspended Alan Mills in the eighth inning last night, and allowed a decisive two-run homer to Lee Stevens off the roof of Boog's Barbecue.

Talk about smoked.

The pit-beef tater was crushing on a night the Orioles rallied from a 5-0 deficit. Their schedule is growing more difficult. Three of their top four starters are injured. They could be on the verge of another perilous slide.

At least now the wild card is within reach, but for how long? The Red Sox could acquire Perez. The Blue Jays might even land Johnson -- they're the one team that can offer Seattle quality starting pitching in return.

Any way you look at it, the Orioles face an uphill battle.

Another prolonged slump, and general manager Pat Gillick might again be inclined to break up the club. But owner Peter Angelos nixed that idea in 1996, and he again will have the final say.

Angelos' problem with trading veterans is that he wants to protect the integrity of his product for the club's season-ticket holders. His sentiment seems all the more noble now, with Wayne Huizenga committing consumer fraud in Florida.

The idea, after all, is to win, and if the Orioles can get close, maybe they should just go for it.

The Marlins won the World Series as a wild-card team last season. The Indians had the worst record of the four AL playoff entries, and came within two outs of winning their first world championship since 1948.

The worst thing that could happen?

The Orioles remain intact, fail to make the postseason and gain four draft picks if Alomar and Palmeiro depart.

They didn't acquire any picks after declining to offer Bobby Bonilla salary arbitration in '96, but the compensation for David Wells turned out to be highly regarded outfield prospects Darnell McDonald and Ntema Ndungidi.

If either of those players develops, that "trade" will seem more than worthwhile, considering that Wells helped the Orioles reach the '96 American League Championship Series.

The difference now?

The players are 2 years older.

And the team probably isn't as good.

Which brings us to Alomar, the Oriole with the greatest market value. He could bring pitchers in return, or prospects who are further advanced than any future draft picks.

Of course, the way Alomar has ignited in the past week, it's difficult to imagine how the Orioles could improve by trading him.

Maybe he's trying to answer his critics. Maybe he's motivated by his pending free agency. Maybe he's trying to make himself more attractive to other clubs, though Alomar insists that he is happy in Baltimore.

Whatever, he again looks like one of the top five players in the game.

"I have never wanted to trade Robbie Alomar," Miller said. "Anytime anyone above me in the organization has asked, I've said no way on Robbie Alomar."

Angelos presumably agrees -- he declined to trade Alomar for Bernie Williams last winter, and objected to a proposal that would have sent the eight-time All-Star to the New York Mets earlier this month.

Given the choice, the Orioles probably would rather trade Palmeiro, but how would they pull it off? First basemen aren't exactly in demand. And Palmeiro has a partial no-trade clause that enables him to block deals to certain teams.

They won't trade Alomar.

They can't trade Palmeiro.

All they can do is wait for their starters to get healthy, hope their bullpen falls into place and see how the rest of the season develops.

After today, the next eight games are against Seattle, Boston and Atlanta. They then visit Philadelphia for three before playing 14 straight against Toronto, the Yankees and Mets.

Nine series, eight against contenders.

A total of 31 games in 32 days.

Mussina is tentatively scheduled to return for the second game against Atlanta, but Miller said, "that is not a given." Key will return in mid-June at the earliest, and even then he will be limited to five innings.

Right now, the rotation is being held together by Scott Erickson, Doug Drabek and Doug Johns. The bullpen remains dangerously thin in the late innings. And the offense never seems to sustain itself for long.

This is still a team in crisis.

A team with tough choices ahead.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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