Building for October or future? July's performance may influence course

Inside the Orioles

June 28, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL -- May was a complete disaster and June has often resembled a sleepwalk. Now comes July and the stop-and-start Orioles are nearing a crossroad not only for this season but also for next.

In the next four weeks, the Orioles must determine if they are players or spectators in October. That ruling will come from a combination of pitchers' health, position in the standings and ownership's willingness to concede a lost season. Right now, there is unanimity within the dugout and the front office that this club will not be taken apart until July 20 at the earliest.

Then what?

Manager Ray Miller says if his team is at .500 after 100 games, he believes it possible to run down the Boston Red Sox, Anaheim Angels or whoever else stands between the Orioles and the wild card.

Others concur but qualify Miller's stance by saying the team must regain either of its injured starting pitchers, Jimmy Key or Scott Kamieniecki, before August for the projection to have teeth. Key, sidelined by an inflamed left rotator cuff, has set a goal of making 12 starts. As for Kamieniecki, "I've got no clue," says Miller.

Overseer of a $69 million payroll, majority owner Peter Angelos is mulling several contingencies recently forwarded by his front office. One calls for the exporting of high-dollar talents such as pending free agents Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro for younger, less expensive talent. Both players have said they hope to remain in Baltimore rather than leave via free agency, but the chance of both staying is remote. On the market, Alomar and Palmeiro will likely command a combined $16 million per season, $4 million bump over this season.

The other extreme calls for an aggressive pursuit of a marquee pitcher such as Seattle Mariners left-hander Randy Johnson, himself a pending free agent who will challenge the $12 million annual salary the Boston Red Sox awarded Pedro Martinez last winter. Such a pursuit also would cost the Orioles at least one of their premium prospects: Ryan Minor, Calvin Pickering or Darnell McDonald.

The final call belongs to Angelos. Two years ago, he ignored suggestions by general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone to trade Bobby Bonilla and David Wells and was rewarded with a wild-card berth and subsequent appearance in the American League Championship Series. But unlike the resilient '96 team, which set a major-league record for home runs and a franchise record for runs scored, or last year's division champs, who could call upon a fail-safe bullpen, the current edition is not dominant in any area.

A depleted rotation has prevented anything more than two three-game winning streaks since a 10-2 start.

Miller can no longer give his bullpen a vote of confidence. The Orioles have won only eight times when surrendering more than three runs.

Health represents the most unpredictable element in the Orioles' dump-or-drive equation. Currently, there is no guarantee that either Key or Kamieniecki will pitch again this season. The Orioles maintain they don't even know the cause of Kamieniecki's neck stiffness, though an impingement is suspected.

Club officials concede without the return of at least one pitcher, there is little reason for optimism.

The easier route would have the sub-.500 Orioles press ahead for an unlikely playoff spot. It would at least delay the unavoidable round of finger-pointing that will accompany a lost season.

The more responsible route might have the Orioles tell a devoted, sophisticated fan base that their all-or-nothing grab at a World Series came up lacking due to poor performances and a crush of pitching injuries. To better prepare for 1999, the club must begin addressing 12 pending free agents by dealing Alomar, Palmeiro or an outfielder such as Joe Carter to a contender. In return, the dollar-rich but prospect-poor Orioles could pursue youth for their major-league roster and a depleted farm system.

Sure, there would be fallout. The Orioles would find it hard to justify a third consecutive jolt in ticket prices. They might also consider restructuring their organizational hierarchy, making the general manager the front-office conduit to Angelos. To an aging clubhouse, it might resemble surrender. To an organization that must revitalize itself with more than money, it would represent a step forward.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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