Bottoms up: O's swift fade speeds future

June 30, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Trust us, it's better this way. Better that it's decisive. Better that it's a crash-and-burn rather than a deceptive wild-card tease.

Just as the Orioles needed to go 0-21 to realize how far they had fallen in 1988, they needed to reach rock bottom this season.

Needed to get swept by Tampa Bay and Montreal. Needed to be questioned by staff ace Mike Mussina, and ridiculed by Expos manager Felipe Alou.

The Orioles collapsed in similar fashion under different ownership in the late 1980s, ignoring their farm system, wasting free-agent dollars, trying to relive their '83 magic.

But they learned from their mistakes.

They traded Mike Boddicker, Fred Lynn and Eddie Murray, getting players such as Brady Anderson, Curt Schilling and Chris Hoiles in return.

They also used consecutive first-round draft picks on Gregg Olson, Ben McDonald and Mussina, and have contended nearly every season since.

The overhaul this time might not be as dramatic, but the Orioles' play has been so disappointing, owner Peter Angelos appears ** ready to pursue a major shift in direction.

At last, the Orioles are considering trading potential free agents for young players. Perhaps the only question now is who will go.

Roberto Alomar seems almost certain to be traded, but the demand for Rafael Palmeiro could be minimal, the return for Joe Carter and Co. inconsequential.

Angelos will deserve just praise if he demonstrates flexibility in his thinking and reverses his position on trading veterans at midseason.

Let's just hope he recognizes the depth of the Orioles' problems.

As Mussina said, "With the team we're putting on the field, whether we have the pitching we expected or we don't, seven games under [now eight] isn't where we should be.

"We have to find ways to win games and we're not finding them. Some days, it doesn't seem like we're looking."

That's an indictment of the team chemistry.

Of the veteran leadership.

And yes, of manager Ray Miller.

When a baseball man as respected as Alou says, he "didn't see much heart out there," the problems lie much deeper than injuries to Mussina, Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki.

Those problems won't be resolved simply by acquiring young talent to supplement the veterans under long-term contract -- Mussina and Scott Erickson, Cal Ripken, Anderson and Mike Bordick.

But you've got to start somewhere.

Mussina and Erickson could form the nucleus of a quality rotation into the 21st century, and Bordick has been outstanding at shortstop all season.

Alas, Ripken is in decline, and Anderson -- in the first season of a five-year, no-trade contract -- is about to lose his leadoff job.

Has there ever been a more rapid case of buyer's remorse?

The frustration with Anderson could make the Orioles hesitant to sign Palmeiro long-term. But for both sides, it might prove the best option.

The Orioles probably can't trade Palmeiro -- there isn't a single contender with an obvious need for a first baseman/DH. And if they lose him to free agency, they can't replace his production unless they sign Mo Vaughn.

They've got the money to keep Palmeiro -- their other 11 potential free agents are earning a combined $25 million. What's more, Palmeiro might be willing to sign quickly. His last experience with free agency was not a good one. And Texas -- his other top choice -- reportedly doesn't want him.

Signing Palmeiro would enable the Orioles to package Double-A first baseman Calvin Pickering for a proven major-leaguer -- provided, of course, that they got younger by adding two or three prospects in return for Alomar.

Cleveland still figures to be Alomar's most logical destination, especially with the Indians expected to pursue a right-handed bat. Alomar, a switch-hitter, would qualify, as would Seattle's Edgar Martinez.

The Orioles have always liked Indians outfielder Brian Giles. They also could target third base power prospect Russell Branyan (currently injured) or infielder Enrique Wilson, who could replace Alomar and later Bordick.

Atlanta is another possible spot for Alomar, but general manager John Schuerholz doesn't sound especially interested -- yet.

Schuerholz last week dismissed trade speculation involving Alomar, Montreal's Mark Grudzielanek and Toronto's Randy Myers, telling reporters, "You can take those and flush them down the toilet with the rest of them."

He reiterated that stance yesterday, saying he was satisfied with second baseman Keith Lockhart and adding that the Braves' only need is "the need to get Mark Wohlers back."

Wohlers, the Braves' closer, is currently in the minors, trying to resolve mechanical problems resulting from a strained side muscle. If he continues to struggle, Schuerholz's big move might be for a reliever.

The Indians, too, need bullpen help, but their second baseman is David Bell. Alomar is far superior to Bell, just as he's far superior to Lockhart. He could potentially lift either Cleveland or Atlanta to the level of the New York Yankees.

Whatever, the Orioles' course finally seems clear.

Former manager Frank Robinson once said that the '88 collapse was the best thing that could have happened to the organization. The '98 crash could have the same effect, forcing club officials to face harsh reality.

It's difficult for fans to watch, and even more difficult for them to accept. But there can be no confusion about the proper direction now, no doubt, no debate.

Trust us, it's better this way.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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