Not spending comes with O's price, too

September 25, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Forget Bernie Williams. Forget Mike Piazza. And maybe forget Rafael Palmeiro, too.

Owner Peter Angelos is adamant that no Oriole will earn more than $10 million per season. Williams and Piazza almost certainly will get that much as free agents. Palmeiro might come close.

Angelos wants to remain fiscally responsible, and finally seems willing to give young players more of a chance. There's only one flaw in his plan, if it is indeed a blueprint for the future:

The Orioles might not compete in 1999.

The fans probably could accept that, if they sensed the organization was heading in the right direction. But Angelos has never embraced the idea of rebuilding, and it's doubtful he would start now.

No, he probably wants it both ways, keeping salaries reasonable while winning as many games as possible. That's every owner's goal, and if Angelos can get away with it, more power to him. But how will he make it happen?

"You can do it the way he's suggesting, but it just makes it more difficult," said former assistant general manager Kevin Malone, now the GM in Los Angeles.

"If your payroll is at $70 million or $75 million and you spread it out, you can have quality players, a quality team. It just limits your options on the best players."

And isn't Angelos committed to being the best?

He says he can't sign a $10 million player without raising ticket prices, but Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and Jimmy Key are earning more than $18 million combined in '98, and it's possible that none will be back.

Eric Davis ($2.5 million) and B. J. Surhoff ($1.37 million) also are free agents. Maybe the Orioles will keep both, maybe not. But payroll flexibility supposedly is one of their advantages now.

Oh, Angelos will spend, probably on pitching -- Kevin Brown or Al Leiter figures to command less than $10 million. The Orioles would boast a strong rotation with one of those two plus Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson. They then could trade Juan Guzman rather than give him a contract extension, and sign or develop a fifth starter.

That, more or less, is how the Atlanta Braves remain among the elite -- they're paying Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine an average of $8.1 million this season. Their only position player in that range is Andres Galarraga at $8.5 million.

Now imagine Calvin Pickering as Ryan Klesko and Ryan Minor as Chipper Jones, Jayson Werth as Javy Lopez and Darnell McDonald as Andruw Jones.

It's doubtful the Orioles will succeed with each of those prospects. But if their goal is to promote Pickering and Minor in 2000 and Werth and McDonald in 2001, at least they'd be following Palmeiro the highly successful Braves model.

Thus, it might be best to draw the line with Palmeiro, who turned 34 yesterday, and form a one-year bridge at first base to Pickering or even Minor. But in the short term, how would the Orioles replace Palmeiro's 43 homers and 121 RBIs?

Their run production is likely to be below average at third base, shortstop and second next season, especially if Jerry Hairston makes the jump from Double-A. And it's not as if they're overloaded with 120-RBI outfielders, either.

The solution would be to sign the Yankees' Williams, who would improve the team more than Palmeiro or even Piazza, the best offensive catcher in the game.

In fact, outgoing general manager Pat Gillick wanted to acquire Williams for Alomar last winter. Angelos nixed the trade, fearing Williams' price in arbitration ($8.25 million) and then free agency.

Williams, 30, is a dynamic package, a switch-hitter with power and speed who plays a Gold Glove center field and is on the verge of his first batting title.

How could he help the Orioles?

Let us count the ways.

Speed. The Orioles remain a station-to-station team, often requiring three hits to score a run. Williams is good for 15 stolen bases a year, but more important, he offers speed in the cleanup spot. Remember him racing from third on Todd Zeile's misplay in Game 3 of the '96 AL Championship Series?

Defense. Club officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Brady Anderson's play in center, and believe he should return to left. Williams would get to more balls and make the pitching staff that much better.

Intensity. Williams isn't a vocal leader, but he helps set the tone for one of the most fiercely competitive teams in recent sports history, treating every at-bat as a battle, running out every ball hard.

Star power. Who is going to take the pressure off a Pickering or a Hairston, both on and off the field? Not Cal Ripken at the end of his career. Not Chris Hoiles. Not Anderson.

In that sense, Williams would be an investment in the future -- face the most scrutiny from opponents, fans and media, giving the young players time to develop into larger roles.

Granted, all this probably is fantasy -- Williams still seems likely to re-sign with the Yankees. Piazza isn't as attractive -- he's an average runner with modest catching skills. But he, too, could fill the void left by Palmeiro.

It's fine if Angelos wants to avoid tying up $10 million per year in a position player. But it won't be fine when he starts talking about keeping his commitment to bring a world champion to Baltimore with such a weak lineup.

Let's hear how he plans to replace Palmeiro. Let's hear how he plans to compete without big-time sluggers in an offensive era. Let's hear how he plans to win, which -- for better or worse -- has always been his plan before.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Fenway Park, Boston

Time: 7: 05

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (8-8, 5.10) vs. Red Sox's Pedro Martinez (18-7, 2.77)

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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