Time for O's to wing it with youth

July 09, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Let's start with the assumption that the Orioles are going nowhere this season, an assumption about as safe as the sun's chances of coming up tomorrow.

If so, there's really only one thing left to play for this season -- the future. Next season and beyond.

Part of that process is the jettisoning of several pending free agents unlikely to return. Look for that sometime in the next three weeks.

But there's another part the Orioles should undertake in the second half of this season.

They should give some of their young players a chance to play. You remember young players, don't you?

OK, maybe you don't. The Orioles haven't used many in recent years, to say the least.

Their idea of a young guy was one who didn't ask if the group health plan included vision care.

Anyway, after the Crash of '98, there's no reason not to scoop up a few prospects out of the farm system and give them a chance.

At the very least, it would be a nice change to watch players burning to prove themselves instead of burning to meet the incentive clauses in their contracts.

Besides, if there's any lesson in the disastrous course of this season, it's that you just can't expect lasting success if you buy an entire team. You have to grow some of it.

Doubt it? Look no further than the Yankees, whose high-priced payroll includes such home-growns as Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte.

The Orioles aren't overflowing with prospects in the high minors -- the system is more talented from Single-A down -- but there are some players who could make a difference sooner than later, given a chance.

Pitchers such as Nerio Rodriguez, Rocky Coppinger and several others.

Position players such as outfielder Danny Clyburn.

They all should get a chance to play this season, a legitimate chance that doesn't abruptly end with the inevitable slumps that young players experience.

Maybe it's a reach, in some cases. But they all can use the experience. Goodness knows there's room on the club for them in '99 or beyond.

Developing that talent is all the Orioles have left to play for this season, unless you count the dramatic push for a .500 finish.

Clyburn, 24, has languished long enough in the minors, where he has nothing left to prove. He has power, speed, all the tools. His defense is suspect, but the club thought enough of him to protect him in the expansion draft. What better time to stick him in the outfield and see what happens?

But it's the young pitchers who should get the longest look by far, given the sorry state of the starting rotation.

Sidney Ponson, 21, is already living and learning in the starting five, a good move. Orioles manager Ray Miller said last weekend that Rodriguez, 25, also "probably" would get a shot.

Put him in there and leave him alone, Ray. Then do the same with Coppinger, 24, when he arrives sometime in the next month. Maybe even take a late look at Chris Fussell, 22, currently at Bowie.

The loser in that equation is, of course, Doug Drabek, a game and accomplished old pro who deserves better. But let's face it, he was signed to a one-year contract on the premise that he could help the team make the playoffs.

With that premise dashed, and with Drabek, 35, unlikely to pitch here in '99, why keep giving him starts in '98?

At this point, giving starts to any pitcher who won't be here next year is like paying monthly rent instead of a mortgage. There's no long-term return on the investment. Not a smart way to operate.

Pete Smith and Doug Johns are out of harm's way because they have landed in the bullpen in long relief, a role that could give them a future here. Smith, 32, still wants to start. But giving the young pitchers the chance first is the right move.

Coppinger's return would be interesting, to say the least. The club needs him a lot more than it did when he was sent to the minors last season. Then, there was competition for places in the rotation. Now, Coppinger has a spot if he can pitch at all.

There are lingering questions about his weight, velocity and maturity, but as exasperating as he is at times, he's a big talent who has already had a 10-win season in the major leagues. The Orioles should nurture him, not trade him.

Rodriguez is another who flew through the minors (once he was converted to a pitcher), only to struggle lately with arm injuries and ineffectiveness.

But again, now is the perfect time to give him a chance without asterisks. Just let him pitch, make mistakes, learn and grow. Good things tend to happen.

Sure, there's always a chance that nothing will come of any of it, that these players aren't ready or, worse, not good enough to help down the line.

But with the Orioles sitting 17 losses back in the wild-card race, they have nothing to lose.

Nothing else to play for in this season going nowhere.

For crying out loud, let's see some kids play for a change.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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