Palmeiro bat makes case for contract

June 23, 1998|By John Eisenberg

What has gone wrong for the Orioles this season? Plenty.

What has gone right? The list is pretty short, but it starts with Rafael Palmeiro.

The same Palmeiro the Orioles may let go after this season if his price runs too high.

The same Palmeiro the club considered trading to the Mets last month.

The same Palmeiro who hit his 10th home run of the month last night at Camden Yards, putting the Orioles ahead for good in a 7-2 victory over the Mets.

As low as the Orioles have sunk -- they're 21 losses behind the Yankees, for crying out loud -- imagine where they'd be without Palmeiro's steady production.

Not only is he among the American League leaders in home runs, runs batted in, total bases and slugging percentage, he also is right behind Roberto Alomar's team lead in runs scored, hits and walks.

He's on a pace to finish with 47 home runs and 134 RBIs, and his .291 batting average is 37 points higher than his '97 average.

And the Orioles are going to carry on without him?

Um, how?

He is their only consistent power hitter and run producer, his left-handed bat easily the most potent on a team ranked a dull eighth in the league in hitting.

The Orioles complain about injuries to their pitchers ruining their season, but their offense hasn't exactly carried a load, either.

They need more, not less, of what Palmeiro, 33, gives them.

At this point, they don't have anyone else who does.

Any blueprint involving his departure had better include a replacement capable of filling the middle of the lineup in the same, prolific fashion.

Forget the one about Ryan Minor moving up to replace Cal Ripken, with Ripken moving to first. Minor, hitting .246 at Bowie, needs more seasoning.

Minor and Ripken combined probably wouldn't equal Palmeiro's production.

Boston's Mo Vaughn, a free agent after this season, is a more serious option. His numbers are almost identical to Palmeiro's this season, and he is three years younger.

But Vaughn, 30, is more likely to stay in Boston than leave, particularly if the Red Sox finish strong. Vaughn is an institution in Boston and the Sox will be under pressure to keep him after such a surprising season.

Other than Vaughn, there aren't many potential replacements capable of living up to Palmeiro's standards.

He's the most successful free-agent signing in Orioles history, having produced 161 home runs and 495 RBIs since coming from Texas. He hasn't gone on the disabled list once.

He hasn't gotten involved in any controversies.

All he has done is show up and hit.

Granted, the Orioles need to get younger, not older, and signing anyone approaching his mid-30s to a long contract would work against that.

They also desperately need to find ways to cut their bloated payroll. But cutting a corner with Palmeiro could do untold damage to an offense that is already one-dimensional and not particularly frightening.

Of course, the Orioles' ability to keep him could depend on the whims of the free-agent market, which is nothing if not unpredictable. Palmeiro is on record as wanting a long-term deal worth as much as $50 million. He might get such an offer from somewhere, given the season he is having.

If they're going to make such an offer, the Orioles would have to break their long-standing house rule of not paying any player more than Ripken.

It's time for that rule to go, quite obviously. Showing respect to a legend is admirable, but harming the on-field product on such grounds is just silly.

More challenging to the Orioles might be their willingness to meet such high demands. They probably could extract a discount, but how much of one?

In any case, the point is that the Orioles would be foolish to dismiss Palmeiro as anything less than a top priority for keeping, particularly since they don't have a replacement.

Yes, there's always a risk of creaks setting in, but this is a guy who spent all last winter getting into top condition -- work that has paid dividends.

This is also a guy who has made wholesale changes in his approach at the plate after hitting .254 a year ago. His walks are up almost 50 percent, and he is using more of the field, manager Ray Miller said yesterday.

"What's amazing," Miller added, "is that he's gotten all those RBIs with the people in front of him struggling. If Brady [Anderson] was Brady, he'd be around 70-something RBI."

Palmeiro's reaction?

"Things are going well [personally], but I want to win, and we're struggling," he said.

And next season?

"I'd like to come back, no question," he said.

If he doesn't, the Orioles had better have ready a Plan B that makes sense. Because his departure would leave a huge hole on a team that can't afford any more.

No place like home

Rafael Palmeiro has five home runs and 10 RBIs in eight games during the current homestand:

Date Opp .. H-AB .. RBI .. EBH*

6/15 NYY .. 3-4 ... . 2 .. 2B, HR (0)

6/16 NYY .. 0-4 ... . 0 .. .. None

6/17 NYY .. 1-4 ... . 1 .. .. HR (0)

6/18 Tor .. 0-3 ... . 0 .. .. None

6/19 Tor .. 2-5 ... . 3 .. .. HR (2)

6/20 Tor .. 1-5 ... . 2 .. .. HR (1)

6/21 Tor .. 1-4 ... . 0 .. .. None

6/22 NYM .. 1-4 ... . 2 .. .. HR (1)

* -- Extra-base hits; men on base for HRs in parentheses.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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