O's injuries come as no surprise

June 16, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

After the injuries to Brady Anderson and Doug Drabek in Toronto, Orioles manager Ray Miller said he was "the lowest I've ever been" -- a powerful statement coming from the manager of Team Titanic.

"After all we had been through in the month of May, I thought we were reasonably healthy," Miller said after last night's 7-4 victory over the New York Yankees. "After six weeks of absolute agony, things were looking good.

"Then, within two seconds, Brady goes down. I said, 'OK, I can cover that. But [pitching coach] Mike [Flanagan] might as well have hit me in the head with a sledgehammer when he told me about Drabek hurting his chest."

Drabek is still a candidate for the disabled list -- he'll test his injured chest muscle today. Anderson is expected to return to the lineup tonight, but as usual at less than 100 percent.

The injury excuse is not without merit for a club that lost three-fifths of its starting rotation, its starting center fielder and top young position player. Then again, the fragility of the Ori-olds should not exactly come as a surprise.

Here's a team that opened the season with eight players over 35. A team that was banking on several injury-prone players. A team with two starting pitchers rejected by the Yankees, in part due to physical concerns.

Put a club like this together, and the risk is obvious. Older players are more susceptible to injury. Older players take longer to recover. Diligent as they might be in their preparation, older players break down.

The Orioles knew this, even planned on it. But they never expected this many injuries at once. And they never expected so many freakish problems, especially on their pitching staff.

The question is, where do they go from here?

Do they try to add another pitcher, and wait for Jimmy Key, Scott Kamieniecki and Co. to return for a potential wild-card push? Or do they take a hard, honest look at their decrepit state, and

determine that this isn't their year?

Last night's rousing victory was precisely the type that clouds the issue. What if the Orioles end the Yankees' streak of 24 straight series without a loss? What if they finally start to click, and turn it around?

There's plenty of time to judge -- the trade deadline isn't until July 31. But unless the Orioles get healthy, owner Peter Angelos would be mistaken if he thinks this is a repeat of 1996, and again refuses to allow his front office to trade veterans for younger players.

It's not as if the Orioles are the only team struggling with injuries. Anaheim has lost three-fifths of its starting rotation and its principal setup man. Texas has lost its double-play combination and two significant pitchers. But somehow, those teams are battling for the AL West lead.

The New York rotation has been almost completely healthy, and further strengthened by the addition of Orlando Hernandez. But the Yankees opened the season without closer Mariano Rivera, lost DH Chili Davis after two games, then missed Tino Martinez for 10, courtesy of Armando Benitez. At the moment, they're playing without cornerstones Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams.

The Orioles' injuries, particularly to ace Mike Mussina, have been more traumatic. But Key has undergone four shoulder operations, and Kamieniecki had disk surgery in '91. It's not as if their latest problems are without precedent.

"We knew that with an older club there was a greater risk of injury," Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone said. "We factored in that there would be some injuries. But I think there have been an inordinate amount. I don't think anyone could factor in the number that we've had."

Nor could anyone anticipate the unusual nature of many of the injuries. Mussina was sidelined by a wart and a 120-mph line drive. Drabek's pulled chest muscle was a first for Miller. Even Kamieniecki's neck problem isn't throwing-related.

"I expected minor injuries in the field with our regular players because of age," Miller acknowledged. "But I didn't expect this many injuries, pitching-wise."

And, as Flanagan noted, the suspensions of Benitez for eight games and Alan Mills for two "hurt us as much as anything." The Orioles were forced to play one pitcher short for those 10 games -- and their staff was already depleted by that time.

In any case, the difference between the Orioles and Yankees was again evident last night, when rookie Ricky Ledee replaced Williams and delivered a three-run homer in his fifth major-league at-bat.

In theory, Jeffrey Hammonds should be the Orioles' Ledee, stepping in for Anderson. But Hammonds is 27 now, and he's on the DL for the sixth time in six pro seasons. His replacement? A 27-year-old journeyman, Jesus Tavarez.

Again, none of these developments is new. Anderson suffered nagging problems much of last season. Hammonds has never had 400 at-bats as an Oriole. And the farm system hasn't produced an impact position player since Cal Ripken, for crying out loud.

The outfield last night consisted of B.J. Surhoff, who appears to have a sore right shoulder; Eric Davis, who has bone chips in his right elbow; and Joe Carter, whose best days in the outfield are clearly behind him.

The Orioles miss Anderson, just as they missed Mussina, just as they miss Key and Kamieniecki. Put a team like this together, and the risk is obvious. Put a team like this together, and the odds increase that it can all go awry.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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