For starters, a deal with some legs

August 01, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Too bad the Orioles' wild-card deficit isn't smaller. Right now, you'd take their starting rotation over the Boston Red Sox's.

At least that how it looked last night after the Orioles acquired right-hander Juan Guzman from Toronto while the Red Sox added left-handed reliever Greg Swindell and first baseman-outfielder Orlando Merced from Minnesota.

Merced and newly acquired Mike Stanley should bolster the Boston offense, but general manager Dan Duquette did nothing to improve his questionable rotation.

The Boston ace, Pedro Martinez, rates a slight edge over the Orioles' Mike Mussina, but that might be the only spot in the rotation where the Red Sox hold an advantage.

Scott Erickson is at least as good as Tim Wakefield, discounting his dismal performance in last night's 9-6 loss to Kansas City.

Guzman is better than Bret Saberhagen. Sidney Ponson is better than John Wasdin. And Scott Kamieniecki is even with Steve Avery, if not ahead.

The problem is, the Red Sox again lead the Orioles by nine games. And Texas, the other team that the Orioles trail for the wild card, made dramatic improvements yester

day, adding Todd Stottlemyre, Royce Clayton and Todd Zeile.

Ah, but don't sweat 1998, and the uphill fight for a measly wild card. The Orioles found an even more compelling motive for joining the trading frenzy.

1999.

At first glance, the acquisition of Guzman might appear a last-ditch attempt to reach the postseason, but it actually represents an important departure for an organization that too often has sacrificed its future for short-term goals.

Yes, the Orioles traded two more young players for another thirty-something veteran. Guzman, though, makes sense for two reasons -- he's under the Orioles' control in '99, and his pitching style should be suitable for Camden Yards.

The Blue Jays, 1 1/2 games behind the Orioles in the wild-card standings, went in the opposite direction, dumping not just Guzman, but also Stanley (Boston), Ed Sprague (Oakland) and Tony Phillips (New York Mets).

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, never comfortable with such a blatant withdrawal, finally achieved the proper balance at the trade deadline, approving a deal that will help his team for this season and beyond.

Mussina and Erickson will return as the top two starters. Guzman will be the No. 3 if the Orioles exercise his $5.25 million option, or maybe even the No. 4 if they sign another quality starter, preferably left-handed.

Nerio Rodriguez did not fit the equation at any level. Ponson is more promising for the immediate future. Minor leaguers Chris ,, Fussell, Matt Riley and Brian Falkenborg all have higher ceilings, and so might Rocky Coppinger and Julio Moreno, if they bounce back from injuries.

Rodriguez's appeal to Toronto was understandable -- he beat Roger Clemens at SkyDome last Sept. 23, and outdueled Guzman at Camden Yards on July 13. The converted catcher was the Orioles' minor-league pitcher of the year in '96. But he's 25 now, and his development has stalled.

"He has a good arm, but I don't think it's as exceptional an arm as I thought it was," manager Ray Miller said. "That doesn't mean it's a bad arm. He still throws 91-92. But the last couple of years, I haven't seen the progression on the breaking ball.

"That doesn't mean it won't come. But you have to have a little bit better command to pitch in our ballpark and have success. He showed us one game where he pitched pretty good. But to be a complete pitcher at the major-league level, you have to be adjustable."

The bottom line is, the Orioles will get more out of Guzman through '99 than they would have out of Rodriguez. The other player they sent to Toronto, Rookie League outfielder Shannon Carter, is Joe Carter's second cousin, a fourth-round pick in 1997. Let the younger relative pay for the older one's sins!

BTC Guzman, who turns 32 in October, has a 2.01 ERA in his past eight starts, including eight shutout innings against Texas on Wednesday. Pitching coach Mike Flanagan described him as "a sinker guy, an experienced guy, a good guy." The Orioles would have you believe he's another Erickson, but let's not get carried away.

Erickson allowed three homers in a span of eight hitters last night, but he entered the game with the best groundball-to-flyball ratio in the league, Guzman the eighth worst. Even more daunting, Guzman is 2-3 with a 5.51 ERA lifetime at Camden Yards, having allowed six homers in 32 innings.

Still, his repertoire includes forkballs, cut fastballs, sliders and changeups, and Flanagan said he was still throwing 95 mph in the eighth inning of his 5-0 loss to the Orioles July 13. Injuries helped inflate his numbers in recent seasons, but he led the AL with a 2.93 ERA in '96, and appears healthy again. This isn't another Sid Fernandez or Doug Drabek.

Eric Davis described Guzman as "effectively wild, not a guy you're going to dig in on -- you just never know what his ball is going to do." Miller and Jeff Reboulet both said that Guzman was throwing more strikes than in recent seasons, though again his stats indicate otherwise -- he's allowing four walks per nine innings.

Whatever, Guzman will give the Orioles another strong arm, six or seven innings per start, a solid chance to win every time he pitches. He's not a two-month rental or a last-gasp solution. He's a well-conceived addition, an Oriole for 1998 and '99.

Pub Date: 8/01/98

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