Smith deal shows team to add, not subtract Believing worst is over, brass aims to salvage season

Inside the Orioles

June 14, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- At about 5 p.m. last Monday inside his cramped office at Veterans Stadium, manager Ray Miller was moved to admit the obvious. Unless general manager Pat Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone could find additional starting pitching, the Orioles' season was probably toast. No rye intended. Just a manager's realization that rookie Sidney Ponson and left-handed nomad Doug Johns can't fit into the rotation of a playoff team.

Just before the Orioles took the field against the Philadelphia Phillies, Miller received the call he'd been waiting for.

Malone, who can boast of once racking up a $10,000 cell phone bill in a month while working as the Montreal Expos GM, phoned to tell Miller that a trade for San Diego Padres right-hander Pete Smith was imminent.

While "canvassing," Malone had dropped a dime on Padres general manager Kevin Towers and within three days the deal crystallized.

"He was a guy who was available," Malone said of Smith. "It was something we could do immediately."

More significantly, the move suggests the Orioles plan to rearm in the upcoming weeks rather than begin a rebuilding campaign for next season. In a market where pitching is at an all-time premium, the Orioles have found short-term help until their injured starting rotation can mend or a more lasting fix can be found.

The Orioles haven't advertised Smith's arrival as a panacea. He, too, is a journeyman who had spent his career with six National League organizations, appearing in the majors for four. The Padres bumped him from their rotation after eight starts and Smith made known his displeasure.

Miller quickly injected Smith into the rotation, replacing Johns, leaving the team without a left-handed starter. Johns now will pitch in long relief, an unpopular role that has obliterated a bullpen heavy with older, more specialized talent. Before the Smith deal, Alan Mills and Arthur Rhodes were being employed there. The overused Mills, considered a closer candidate by some organizations, detests it. Rhodes, who has pitched with a pulled muscle in his left side for more than a month, previously admitted having no idea of his role.

"We're looking to take a bigger step," says Malone, referring to the July 31 trading deadline that typically incites the marketplace. "Our focus is on adding, not subtracting."

Majority owner Peter Angelos said last month that breaking apart the team would represent a violation of trust with season-ticket holders.

Derided for a $69 million clubhouse that for 12 weeks has performed the dead-man's float, the Orioles have decided against shedding pending free agents such as second baseman Roberto Alomar and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, whom they briefly injected into trade talks last month.

The Orioles now believe they bottomed out several weeks ago. Trailing the Boston Red Sox by 7 1/2 games in the AL wild-card chase, Palmeiro has boldly asserted the Orioles are the superior team.

A willingness to deal Mills or Armando Benitez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Hideo Nomo indicates where the Orioles believe their greatest weakness to be. Another starter would allow Miller to plug Ponson into middle relief, restoring the order he enjoyed at the end of spring training.

The Orioles will continue monitoring the market closely. The closer the trade deadline comes, the more likely a non-contender will be willing to part with a high-priced starter.

"At this time there are no front-line guys available," says Malone. "Maybe some bullpen guys, that's all."

A year ago the Orioles could go get Geronimo Berroa and Harold Baines to address offensive deficiencies. In both deals they parted with pitching. Along with most of baseball, they no longer enjoy such a luxury.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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