In half nelson, O's eye next move Pinned at the break, free-agent-filled club wrestles with its future

Orioles at midterm

July 06, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- During the dying days of spring training, back when the Orioles were still referred to as defending division champions and considered a World Series contender, general manager Pat Gillick made his most telling prognostication of a long season. He approached head trainer Richie Bancells and told him he would probably be the most important person in the clubhouse.

Gillick's truth still hurts. The oldest, most expensive roster in the major leagues has rarely been whole since, contributing to a spiral that leaves the Orioles looking more closely at their future than a disillusioning present.

The Orioles' combination of 11 pending free agents, the probable end to Gillick's three-year term, a raft of injuries and about $31 million freed by expiring contracts provides a mix of intrigue and promise.

Majority owner Peter Angelos asserted last week that fans should not despair over next season. Part of his vow includes retooling a hobbled starting rotation by acquiring two starting pitchers.

Other organizational voices see a need for a proven closer, an upgrade at catcher and younger legs for the bench. Unknown is whether the club will trade or re-sign offensive pillars Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B. J. Surhoff. Angelos has made recent overtures at energizing talks with Palmeiro. Meanwhile, Surhoff is still waiting for negotiations that began last November to reach critical mass.

"I think everybody expects changes to some degree. When, where and how that's the question," said catcher Chris Hoiles.

The Orioles started the season with less turnover than any other major-league club. They could end this month resembling a much different team.

For a team that ended the first half at 38-50, many might welcome such change. The Orioles collapsed after a 10-2 start, suffering losing skids of nine and eight games but never putting together anything better than two three-game win streaks.

A nine-game losing streak in mid-May defined the half. Mike Mussina suffered a broken nose and lacerations when struck by a line drive against the Cleveland Indians May 14. The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays then swept a four-game series at Camden Yards. In New York, Armando Benitez drew an eight-game suspension for inciting an on-field brawl May 19. The next night, Jimmy Key pitched with an inflamed rotator cuff and hasn't pitched since. Two nights later in Oakland, Scott Kamieniecki left the game with neck stiffness. He has been inactive since. His treatment has included traction.

"I feel like I've been one player and pitcher short the whole year," said manager Ray Miller. "It doesn't seem to change."

Palmeiro, 33, has led the Orioles in RBIs each season since signing as a free agent in 1994. Though on pace for a career season, he faces a game glutted with productive first basemen, especially among the well-monied clubs able to bid for him. Other salaries conspire to keep him from achieving the $10 million threshold he suggested last January. St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire makes $9.5 million. Frank Thomas, whose per year production numbers outstrip McGwire's, earns $10 million.

"The question is: Am I limited?" said Palmeiro.

Angelos has been presented with one plan that would have the club start dealing between July 20 and 31 in return for high-ceiling prospects. An attempt then would be made during the off-season to fill with free agents. The notion hasn't caught on in this clubhouse.

"You're going to trade somebody for three months to get somebody signed to a contract [for 1998]? It just doesn't work that way," said Mussina, who is signed through 2000. "I would prefer to see us play it out with what we have and make the decision afterward.

"I know how it's been done in the past. If the objective was to trim the payroll and get a bunch of young players who wouldn't be here for two or three years, then that's one thing. But Mr. Angelos doesn't usually play it that way."

Mussina's assessment, made a week after he questioned the team's desire to win, is validated by ownership.

Said Angelos last week: "We are always aware that in the course of reconstruction there are millions of dollars available for recruitment of other players. That's where we are. That part of the plan will be absolutely implemented. It doesn't take much imagination to realize what we would be doing."

The Orioles have come almost full cycle since Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone's hiring after the 1995 season. Then they acquired Alomar, David Wells, Randy Myers, Surhoff and Roger McDowell and reached back-to-back League Championship Series. Now, Gillick or, more likely, his successor face equally significant choices in shaping the franchise's future.

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