Orioles can't afford to go old route

November 20, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Losing Eric Davis isn't a bad move as long as the Orioles emerge from this free-agent frenzy with a solid outfield -- and that's hardly assured.

Not that Davis won't be missed regardless of who replaces him. He played well and hard in his two years here. He was a positive and inspirational leader in a sour clubhouse. His return from colon cancer was magnificent. The Orioles need more players like him, not fewer.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who signed Davis, 36, to a two-year deal yesterday, are getting one of baseball's best guys.

But even though the Orioles will hear boos around town for letting him walk away, their thinking has merit. Really, it does.

They finished 35 games behind the Yankees last season with an ancient team and the highest payroll in major-league history. They had to draw the line and stop signing guys in their mid-30s to major contracts. They had to break their addiction to age.

It's simple, really. They tried to win the World Series one way, they didn't come anywhere close, and now it's time to try another way.

Time to start thinking longer than one year at a time. Start developing a semblance of continuity. Start blending in some young, home-grown talent.

Stop playing Rotisserie ball.

If they're going to re-sign any older free agents, they should sign Rafael Palmeiro, who is two years younger than Davis, never gets injured and delivers huge numbers. They also should sign ** the steady B.J. Surhoff, who, unlike Davis, can play every day.

But even if they lose Davis, Roberto Alomar, Surhoff and Palmeiro -- their four best hitters in 1998 -- it's hardly a tragedy given the disappointing finish of 1998. That's a signal for the team to try a new direction, not continue on the same, old path.

Davis could have fit in either way if he'd wanted a one-year deal, or even a two-year bargain deal. Those appeared to be his options until he hit .327 with 28 home runs and 89 RBIs in 130 games last season. The Cardinals signed him to a deal that averages $4 million a year.

The Orioles could have afforded that higher price -- they have as much money as anyone -- but they have to stop building around brittle players nearing the end of their careers.

They have to stop gambling their won-loss record on the shaky notion that a stable of aging veterans will continue to produce at the same rate as they have before.

It didn't work in 1998, that's for sure.

Sure, Davis may hit even better in 1999 now that he's next to Mark McGwire in the Cardinals' batting order. Then again, his creaking legs, which troubled him throughout the second half of 1998, may also give way under the rigors of playing in the outfield every day. He served mostly as a designated hitter with the Orioles.

Davis bristled yesterday at the Orioles' insinuation that he might not hold up. He said he suspected that Orioles manager Ray Miller had convinced the front office that Davis wouldn't produce at such a rate again. Who knows if he will?

But the point is that the Orioles weren't wrong to try another direction in the wake of 1998 -- as long as they do, indeed, come up with a suitable, new direction.

At this point, it's hard to tell where they're headed.

Surhoff? His negotiations have gone on way too long, and now he's mulling offers from the Pirates and Mets. Brian Jordan? The Milford Mill grad is interested in coming home to play, but he's still unsigned and in demand. Bernie Williams? Forget it.

If those players end up elsewhere next year, who will play in the Orioles' outfield? Will Brady Anderson play all three positions?

Orioles GM Frank Wren told The Sun's Joe Strauss yesterday that he is exploring other, less publicized options, but what are they? Albert Belle? Please, let's hope not.

The reality is there aren't many attractive, salable options out there other than Jordan and, say, Steve Finley, the former Oriole who didn't even hit .250 last year.

Davis was going to be the Orioles' fallback option if they didn't get Jordan. Now that their fallback option is gone, they'd better get Jordan. And they'd better hope Danny Clyburn, a top prospect who has been passed over for several years, is ready to bloom.

Losing Davis is a shame from a personal standpoint, but a reasonable baseball move for an old team that collapsed last season.

Then again, it's not such a reasonable move if the Orioles can't replace him.

Can they?

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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