Pennants are built, not bought

August 02, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Think maybe now the Orioles will learn?

You can't buy a pennant.

You can't build a championship team Rotisserie-style.

You can't just assemble a collection of big-name veterans, revel in their past achievements and expect their reputations to carry you to the World Series.

Consider the Orioles' four off-season additions -- Joe Carter, Ozzie Guillen, Norm Charlton and Doug Drabek.

Carter was traded. Guillen and Charlton were released. Drabek was demoted to the bullpen, and might not last the season.

All four veterans had outstanding careers. But all four came to the Orioles too late.

Rich Becker is a better fit than Carter, Sidney Ponson a better fit than Drabek, Doug Johns a better fit than Charlton.

Before this season, only hard-core fans had heard of any of them.

"You have to have a certain amount of role players," general manager Pat Gillick said. "From an economic standpoint, you can't have 25 guys making $5 million. You have to have some people who can do certain things at certain times during the season who aren't in the star category."

Only recently, however, have the Orioles returned to that philosophy, claiming Becker on waivers, promoting Lyle Mouton from Rochester, playing Lenny Webster more at catcher.

The oft-injured Juan Guzman might be another player whose best days are behind him, but he's a relatively spry 31, and should be entering his prime. The average age of the four off-season imports is 35.

Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone presided over the signings. Manager Ray Miller strongly endorsed the additions of Drabek and Charlton. But owner Peter Angelos is indirectly responsible, too.

Angelos has coveted big names ever since assuming control of the club in October, 1993. In his first off-season, he struck gold with Rafael Palmeiro, struck out with Sid Fernandez and Chris Sabo.

When Gillick replaced Roland Hemond at the end of the '95 season, it seemed the perfect marriage of an owner committed to winning and a GM shrewd enough to acquire the necessary parts.

The Orioles advanced to the American League Championship Series in '96 after Gillick signed Roberto Alomar, Randy Myers, Jimmy Key and B. J. Surhoff.

They did it again in '97 after Gillick signed Mike Bordick, Eric Davis and spare parts Webster, Scott Kamieniecki and Jeff Reboulet.

But they took until mid-July to click in '98.

A team with a productive farm system would not have needed to add such over-the-hill veterans. An owner with confidence in his fan base would not have lusted after every available former All-Star.

If you win, they will come.

They will rally behind hustling outfielders like Becker, hard-throwing rookies like Ponson, honest journeymen like Webster and Reboulet.

Carter has hit 389 career homers, but he couldn't run down fly balls or throw out runners on the bases like Becker, or even Mouton.

Little things.

Things that help a team win.

Becker was acquired on a waiver claim, Mouton as a minor-league free agent from Japan. Miller was so impressed with the two pickups, he backed Malone to replace Gillick as GM.

The great Orioles teams from the past had their share of stars. But they also had players like John Lowenstein, Terry Crowley and Lenn Sakata. Role players that are the hallmark of every championship club.

"That's why I made the pitch for Kevin -- he and Pat understand that," Miller said. "I keep pointing to the Yankees and Atlanta. Look at their benches every year. It kind of turns over, but the guys they get are good fits.

"In retrospect, the way we set up, you kind of wish that maybe we had added a speedier guy in Carter's spot, thinking the guy would have trouble adjusting to not playing every single day.

"You don't know these things. But in this league, it's nice to have speed."

Nice to have youth, in other words.

The Orioles have developed a core of six to 10 prospects with solid major-league potential. But under Angelos, they've shown patience with only their top young talents -- Ponson, Jeffrey Hammonds, Armando Benitez.

The '97 expansion draft offered a classic illustration of an organization torn between its present and future. The Orioles protected so many veterans, they lost three players who might have helped them this season and beyond.

It wasn't just Esteban Yan, whom Gillick was set to trade for Al Leiter. Outfielder David Dellucci and infielder Aaron Ledesma also are enjoying major-league success.

The Orioles' first-round pullbacks were believed to be Eric Davis, Jesse Orosco and Julio Moreno, a top pitching prospect fighting back from arm trouble.

Arizona grabbed Dellucci, a left-handed hitting outfielder who appeared in 17 games for the Orioles last season, and is now batting .278 for the Diamondbacks.

Why didn't Gillick protect him?

Davis, 35, was the subject of internal debate when the Orioles prepared their initial 15-man protected list. He was coming off colon-cancer surgery and set to earn $2.5 million. The Orioles were willing to expose him once, but not twice.

Orosco, 41, was a valued left-handed relief specialist, and a potential closer for an expansion team at $800,000. It made little sense for a contender to protect him over Dellucci, whom Gillick didn't project making an impact in Baltimore until '99.

Ledesma?

He, too, might have spent most of the season at Triple-A. But the Orioles lost one of their second-round pullbacks, injured pitcher Steve Montgomery, by exposing him to waivers. They recently demoted another, catcher Melvin Rosario, to Double A.

The end result is probably a wash -- Becker fills the same role as Dellucci, P. J. Forbes the same role as Ledesma. But by now, with the failures of Carter, Charlton and Co., the lesson should be clear.

The Orioles need to build a team, not a collection of individuals.

No more retreads.

No more Rotisserie ball.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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