O's still pitching to add starter Sour weekend doesn't dim desire to improve club 'now, for future'

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

The Orioles remain optimistic that they will trade for additional starting pitching before Friday night's waiver deadline despite last weekend's misstep that left them nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League wild-card race.

As the Orioles begin their most extensive road swing of the season tonight in Detroit, assistant general manager Kevin Malone said, "I don't think our approach and our focus are going to change. I guess it could. But I don't think we're looking back. I think our only concern is making ourselves better right now and for the future."

The quickening pursuit has pushed Malone and general manager Pat Gillick toward the Montreal Expos, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, among others. The Orioles are especially intrigued by Expos left-hander Carlos Perez and pending Cardinals free agent Todd Stottlemyre. The Pirates, who last week traded Esteban Loaiza to Texas, also possess Jon Lieber.

Should the Orioles opt for bullpen help, they could press the Phillies for Mark Leiter or Mark Portugal. However, the upstart Phillies remain within striking distance of the NL wild card.

"We want to upgrade and improve," Malone said. "We're not going to mortgage the future. But if we can accomplish what we want to accomplish, we will consider moving some people."

According to Malone, those subtractions will not come from the major-league clubhouse despite persistent reports that the Atlanta Braves are interested in closer Armando Benitez and middle reliever Alan Mills.

Mills, a pending free agent, could serve as a closer for the Braves should they strike out in attempts to land Jeff Montgomery from the Kansas City Royals or Roberto Hernandez from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. To part with either reliever, the Orioles likely would have to finalize an additional trade.

"I don't see that," Malone said of a potential trade involving Benitez or Mills. "We're not looking to subtract."

Last Tuesday the Orioles opted not to deal any of their core, including first baseman Rafael Palmeiro or second baseman Roberto Alomar. However, standing still could be just as damaging to their playoff aspirations because the Red Sox are expected to trade for pitching help by this weekend. The Anaheim Angels, who stand between the Orioles and Red Sox, and only hold a one-game lead in the AL West, are seeking pitching, too.

The Orioles also might pursue Arizona pitcher Willie Blair, a disappointment since signing with the expansion Diamondbacks as a free agent last winter. Gillick pursued Blair but dropped out when bidding reached four years.

Intense competition for pitching may force the Orioles to modify their strategy. Previously they insisted any move would be for a player who could help them beyond this season. Stottlemyre does not fit the profile.

"It's not the perfect equation, but it's something we'd consider," Malone said. "There are only limited ways to get better, so we can't rule anything out."

The Orioles make no secret about the need to fortify starting pitching throughout the organization. Sidney Ponson's ascendancy this year underscores the value of development. Now projected as next season's No. 4 starter, Ponson represents a savings to an organization forced to overspend to re-sign Scott Kamieniecki last December before acquiring Doug Drabek for $1.8 million.

Ponson replaced Rocky Coppinger as the Orioles' star of the near future. A 10-game winner in 1996, Coppinger continues to confront weight problems while rehabilitating his elbow and rotator cuff from surgery last August. Matt Riley, a third-round draft pick in 1997, has established himself as the organization's top left-handed prospect and is projected for arrival in Baltimore in 2000.

Last Thursday's trade of outfielder Joe Carter for San Francisco Giants minor-league pitcher Darin Blood reinforces the direction. Not only did the Orioles trade Carter, they picked up $500,000 in salary as well.

If the Orioles obtain a pitcher before the deadline, they probably will have to surrender pitching in return. Nerio Rodriguez would be available but younger arms such as Chris Fussell are in higher demand. Fussell, 22, jumped from Double-A Bowie to Triple-A Rochester last week.

The Orioles' much-scrutinized farm system has not produced an everyday position player since Cal Ripken in 1982. First-round draft pick Jeffrey Hammonds is projected as a starting outfielder next season but remains hampered by disk and wrist injuries that could again lead the club to test his trade value. Manager Ray Miller said last weekend that Hammonds needs to lose his tag as a fragile commodity by next summer.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Tiger Stadium, Detroit

Time: 7: 05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: O's Sidney Ponson (3-6, 5.84) vs. Tigers' Brian Powell (1-2, 7.33)

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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