For starters, O's rotation needs help

September 30, 1998|By John Eisenberg

As the Orioles set out to try to right what has gone so wrong, they should chant a simple mantra.

Pitching and prospects. Pitching and prospects. No substitutions, please.

Remembering those basics would help a sinking organization that's in disarray after displacing a top-of-the-line manager, general manager and pitching coach in the past 11 months.

More than just the on-field product needs rebuilding, of course. The Orioles also need to hire a competent general manager and get their major-league and minor-league departments back on the same page.

They could also stand to find a more accomplished manager than Ray Miller, whose career record of 188-213 is telling.

But the team itself is the biggest concern. The Orioles need a heart transplant and a new philosophy after the debacle of '98. In short, they need a makeover. Upgrading their pitching is the best way to accomplish that.

Forget about Bernie Williams or Mike Piazza. If the Orioles throw big money at any free agent this winter, they should throw it at a No. 1 starter.

Randy Johnson, for instance. He has resembled the same, ol' Big Unit since being traded to Houston two months ago. He isn't young (35), but he's a year younger than Roger Clemens, who could win back-to-back Cy Youngs. So age isn't a factor if you still can pitch.

The guess here is Johnson is motivated to win after leaving Seattle so unhappily, and he's good for at least two more strong years. The Orioles could offer him a fat three-year deal and throw Johnson, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson at the American League. Fearsome.

No other free agent would have a more immediate and positive impact than Johnson. Doubt it? Look at Pedro Martinez's impact on the Red Sox.

And if not Johnson, what about Kevin Brown? Sure, he was unhappy in his year here in 1995 and left on grumbling terms, but that was several front-office shake-ups ago, so no hard feelings. He turns 34 in March, he has developed into an All-Star, and his power sinker is meant for Camden Yards.

Al Leiter, who went 17-6 with the Mets this season, is another free agent under consideration. Juan Guzman, a holdover who wants a contract extension, is also an option.

One way or another, the Orioles should add two strong starters to go with Mussina and Erickson, including one who joins Mussina at the top of the rotation. Mussina, an old-school type, would welcome the company, not bristle at the symbolism.

Yes, that's a thirtysomething rotation, but it's a necessity, not a problem, with the Orioles' best pitching prospects still in the low minors.

Expensive additions mean expensive subtractions, of course. That's the tricky part. But are the Orioles' decisions so tough?

Roberto Alomar is gone, that's clear. He is a wonderful player, but also moody and unpredictable. He wasn't wrong about a double standard existing in a clubhouse of celebrities such as Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson, but he was wrong to sulk about it on the field. He martyred way too much, period. His excellence will be missed, but it's divorce time.

Time to see if second base prospect Jerry Hairston can make the jump from Double-A.

Rafael Palmeiro's case is much more complicated. He's a good soldier and one of the game's most productive hitters. His loss would leave a huge hole.

If the market for him is soft (many wealthy teams already have first basemen) and the Orioles can sign him to a three-year deal, terrific. But he wants five years and $50 million, and the Orioles just can't go there. Not when the deal would expire when he is 39. Not when the club has a top first base prospect, Calvin Pickering.

True, Pickering won't be ready until 2000, which could leave a hole next season. But Ripken can play first, and so can Chris Hoiles. Maybe another short-term solution exists.

Regardless, as hard as it'd be to lose Palmeiro, it's time for the Orioles to stop filling short-term needs with long-term solutions.

BTC Time for them to start curbing their itch to buy their whole team.

Don't bury Pickering with a five-year deal for Palmeiro. Spend the big money on pitching. Leave room for Pickering, Hairston, Ryan Minor, Jayson Werth and Darnell McDonald. They're the future. Don't layer over them before they get here.

Not that it's wrong to re-sign such stalwarts as Eric Davis and B. J. Surhoff. They played hard and well in '98. They deserve to come back if their prices are right. You don't have to tear up the whole team.

It's also true that a better arm behind the plate is a must in '99, as well as a more dependable closer after Armando Benitez's tumultuous '98.

But no matter what happens in the short term, an emphasis on pitching and prospects is the Orioles' best long-term bet.

Strong pitching would lessen the effects of their shortcomings and build a bridge to their new generation of home-grown players.

Strong pitching would give them the steadying force they need after a horrifying '98.

Rebuilding the organization is a complex matter that might take time, but strong pitching would make the process entirely more pleasant.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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