Short-term view on veteran stars has a long-term price

July 11, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Let's refresh some memories.

The Orioles stuck too long with Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, John Lowenstein and Rich Dauer after winning the 1983 World Series.

They tried to remain competitive by signing free agents Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase after the '84 season.

And they wound up in a five-year slide from '84 to '88, their victory total dropping from 85 to 83 to 73 to 67 to 54.

Manager Ray Miller was there at the start -- he was pitching coach from '78 to '85. Cal Ripken is as familiar with the crash as anyone -- he was part of it.

Yet, Ripken and Miller are now suggesting that the Orioles follow a similar path, and keep an aging team largely intact.

Their sentiments are understandable -- Miller wants proven talent to manage, while Ripken wants the team to return to the World Series before he retires.

Still, the Orioles are in a far deeper hole than Ripken, Miller and others care to admit, and re-signing Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro isn't the answer.

One of them, maybe.

Both, not a chance.

It was almost ironic to hear Ripken publicly support two players who are privately envious of his stature -- Alomar's disenchantment is believed to stem in part from his perception ++ that a double standard exists for the third baseman.

It's also worth noting that if the Orioles re-signed Palmeiro, they wouldn't be asking a certain future Hall of Fame third baseman to move to first anytime soon.

But let's assume Ripken's motives are pure.

Alomar and Palmeiro, after all, are the Orioles' two best players. And unlike Dauer, Bumbry and Co. in '84, they're still performing at All-Star levels.

"They're outstanding players," Miller said, "the kind you build around."

The problem is, the Orioles already are stuck with a declining Ripken. They've given five-year deals to Scott Erickson and Brady Anderson. And now they're going to take on two more potential albatrosses?

Sorry, the long-term needs of the organization must come first.

Unlike many superstars, Ripken rarely has been one to play general manager. Miller, too, has been careful not to overstep his bounds with the front office and owner Peter Angelos.

Certainly, no one can accuse them of overstatement when they say that Alomar and Palmeiro are better than any players who might replace them.

But that's only a surface analysis.

If the Orioles kept Alomar and Palmeiro for $8 million each, they'd be committed to more than $50 million for nine players next season. And to win a World Series, they'd still need a catcher, an outfielder, two starting pitchers and a closer.

Hello?

Angelos says he won't initiate the lengthy rebuilding process that Ripken and Miller fear. But the Orioles need to start making hard choices or they'll be looking at an even more decrepit club, an even worse nightmare.

Alomar, 30, could be traded for two or three quality young players, especially if the Orioles attract interest from several clubs and extract maximum value for the potential free agent.

Palmeiro, 33, presents more of a dilemma -- he will be difficult to trade and perhaps difficult to sign now that Mo Vaughn has rejected a four-year, $37 million contract from Boston.

The Orioles would prefer to offer Palmeiro three years at a lower salary, but perhaps the only way he would accept such a below-market deal is if he feared that Vaughn's presence would squeeze him in free agency.

Could happen -- Palmeiro flipped when Texas snubbed him for Will Clark five years ago. Still, it seems unlikely that he would cave -- or that his agents would let him cave -- in the middle of a stellar season.

So, the Orioles could wind up with only two young players and two draft picks if they trade Alomar and lose Palmeiro.

But those aren't their only options.

Remember the proposed trade of Alomar and Palmeiro for the New York Mets' Carlos Baerga and John Olerud? Part of the appeal for the Orioles was that Olerud was signed for next season.

That deal is long dead, but the Orioles could target other players in Olerud's position -- those with one year left on their contracts who are unlikely to be extended by their present clubs.

Hate to bring up an evil name from the past, but Texas general manager Doug Melvin succeeded with two such deals in recent years, sending Ken Hill to Anaheim for Jim Leyritz and Dean Palmer to Kansas City for Tom Goodwin.

Melvin knew he wasn't going to re-sign Hill or Palmer, so he bought a year's time with Leyritz and Goodwin. And when he flipped Leyritz for Aaron Sele, the deals looked that much better.

Ideally, the Orioles would follow a similar path, trading for established, but younger, players. Ripken said he is concerned about "not being considered a contending club." Clearly, Angelos is, too.

Well, the Orioles aren't a contending club even with Alomar and Palmeiro, though Miller places the blame almost solely on pitching injuries. If Ripken also subscribes to that theory, then he, too, is in denial.

The Orioles waited one year too long to break up this team. They will only compound their problems if they keep it together any longer.

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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