Before first pitch, Orioles already trailing in AL East

November 24, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Presenting the 1999 Orioles' outfield:

Brady in right. Brady in center. Brady in left.

Danny Clyburn? Willie Greene? Rich Becker?

They never looked so good.

Eric Davis left for St. Louis. Brian Jordan signed with Atlanta. B. J. Surhoff could join Pittsburgh or the New York Mets.

Brady Anderson remains the Orioles' only proven outfielder under contract for next season, and club officials don't even want him to return to center field.

That was supposed to be Jordan's position, but he spurned his hometown team yesterday to sign a five-year, $40 million contract with the NL East champion Braves.

And that's not the half of it.

Roberto Alomar is headed to Cleveland, Bernie Williams could be going to Boston and Albert Belle might be on the verge of joining the world champion New York Yankees, along with Rondell White or Jim Edmonds.

That's right, three of the four American League playoff teams could improve on paper -- and AL West runner-up Anaheim is expected to land Mo Vaughn and possibly Randy Johnson.

But the Orioles no longer play in that league, not on or off the field.

To save face, they probably will attempt to re-sign Rafael Palmeiro, a player they should have traded with Alomar last season, and Surhoff, a player who was willing to accept millions less before becoming a free agent.

Frankly, they were fortunate to strike out with Jordan, a player who has appeared in more than 140 games only once, never hit more than 25 home runs and never made an All-Star team.

The Braves, a World Series contender with a deep farm system and resourceful GM, are in better position to make such a commitment. The Orioles didn't need to give another five-year contract to another second-tier player.

Problem is, they want to field a contender in '99.

The best guess is that they will retain Palmeiro and Surhoff, trade for the surgically repaired Todd Hundley and pursue a declining Steve Finley, but even then they would still need to replace Alomar and Davis from a team that finished 79-83 last season.

Still need the front-line starting pitcher they claimed was their top priority. Still need a second baseman and additional middle-relief help to even think about a wild card.

It's too early to pass judgment on Frank Wren's first off-season, but he was fighting uphill from the start. The Orioles should have begun rebuilding last season. If they had acted then -- and started putting younger pieces in place -- they might not have been forced to react on so many fronts now.

The warning signs were everywhere last summer, but the Orioles stubbornly kept their team intact in an ill-fated attempt to become the only team this century to rally from a 15 1/2 -game deficit for a postseason berth.

Remember the proposed swap of Alomar and Palmeiro for John Olerud and Carlos Baerga? Peter Angelos didn't like it, and Palmeiro would have needed to be bought out of his no-trade clause. But in hindsight, it wasn't such a bad idea.

Baerga would have left as a free agent -- no big deal -- but Olerud is under contract for one more season, and would have formed a perfect bridge to first base prospect Calvin Pickering.

Now, the Orioles will lose Alomar for draft picks. And even if they keep Palmeiro -- their best hitter -- how much sense does it make giving him a four-year contract when he's 34 and Pickering is behind him?

The trade with the Mets was but one possibility; surely, there were others. Maybe the offers for Alomar and Palmeiro were inadequate. But the bottom line is, the Orioles should have foreseen trouble ahead.

The same is even true with Surhoff, who initially sought $13.5 million over three years. The Orioles balked at his request, and now they're competing with a four-year offer from Pittsburgh. What would they give Surhoff? Oh, probably about $13.5 million for three years.

Surhoff probably would prefer Baltimore to almost-certain non-contention in Pittsburgh or the New York lifestyle with the Mets. He's more a follower than a leader. It's difficult to imagine him as the Pirates' marquee player. But who knows? By now, he might be disenchanted enough to leave.

In any case, the Orioles appear to be rapidly falling behind their competition, unless they're preparing a major surprise, like signing Bernie Williams. The warehouse should be Panic Central right about now.

As usual, Cleveland GM John Hart is one step ahead of everyone, even if he's giving Alomar a four-year, $30 million deal without any apparent competition. Hey, it's only money. And heaven knows, Hart needs to keep Alomar happy.

Perhaps Alomar will benefit from playing with his older brother, Sandy -- he needs to restore his reputation to salvage his Hall of Fame candidacy. He's sure to be an absolute terror next season, just as he was for the Orioles in '96.

The Indians now have 18 Gold Gloves up the middle with the two Alomars, shortstop Omar Vizquel and center fielder Kenny Lofton. The top of their lineup will feature Lofton and Alomar. And they've quietly but dramatically improved their bullpen, acquiring right-hander Jerry Spradlin and left-hander Ricardo Rincon in trades.

The Yankees, meanwhile, seem ready to sign Belle and trade for White or Edmonds. The Red Sox, too, are thinking big, mulling a deal for Williams similar to Pedro Martinez's six-year, $75 million blockbuster.

The Orioles couldn't compete if they tried, and they're not trying.

They should have seen this day coming.

It's too late to catch up now.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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