Belle or not, O's still need Palmeiro

November 29, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles might win their battle with Rafael Palmeiro, but lose the war.

Palmeiro batted .296 to Robin Ventura's .263 last season, hit 43 homers to Ventura's 21, produced 121 RBIs to Ventura's 91.

But the Orioles have exceeded the New York Mets' four-year, $28 million offer to Ventura, according to a major-league source.

Palmeiro dreamed of compiling Hall of Fame numbers at Camden Yards. Now, he appears to be negotiating his way out of town.

Offensively, the Orioles clearly would be better with Palmeiro at first and Cal Ripken at third than Ventura at third and Ripken at first.

The signing of Ventura would give them better defense, a player nearly three years younger and more long-term options at first.

But who's going to bat third?

Not Palmeiro. Not Eric Davis. Not Roberto Alomar.

Not anyone on the current roster.

The Orioles will improve with Albert Belle only if they re-sign Palmeiro. And if they don't improve with Belle, what's the point of even taking such a risk?

Ventura can't match Palmeiro's production. B. J. Surhoff can't match Palmeiro's production. They're complementary parts, not big-time power threats.

The Orioles actually might bat Palmeiro fifth to protect Belle, but whatever the combination, the two sluggers would form a devastating left-right punch.

An outfield of Belle, Brady Anderson and Surhoff would be an upgrade over last season -- assuming the Orioles keep Surhoff.

An infield of Ventura, Mike Bordick, Ripken and a second baseman to be named could be below-average offensively at every position.

Why are we even talking about this?

Because the Orioles appear to be drawing a line with Palmeiro. Drawing a line with their best free agent ever while they court the biggest creep in the game.

Not that it's all their fault.

Palmeiro, 34, is playing hardball, demanding an average annual salary closer to Mo Vaughn's $13.3 million than the Orioles' offer of $9 million. He's out of line, but try to follow his mercenary logic.

In case you haven't noticed, players measure themselves by salaries as well as statistics. The Orioles are offering Palmeiro $20 million less than Belle, $35 million less than Anaheim gave Vaughn.

Such are the slights that lead to baseball divorces.

Palmeiro is not at the level of Belle and Vaughn, but his numbers are comparable. His goal now might be to return to Texas, possibly even for the same deal the Orioles are offering -- with no deferred money, and no state taxes.

Obviously, Palmeiro feels emboldened by the market, believing the Rangers will pursue him if they fail to sign Randy Johnson. It's also possible that he's overplaying his hand, and will regret turning down the Orioles' $45 million.

Whatever, the Orioles should not be surprised by Palmeiro's position -- he said before spring training that he wanted five years and $50 million. Club officials viewed his request as almost an act of treason. But who read the market better?

If Palmeiro leaves, the Orioles will portray him as greedy, and the first baseman will portray the team as ungrateful. They'll both have a point, but the fans won't care. A popular and productive player will be gone.

Which leads to Ventura.

He struck out 111 times last season and batted .231 with runners in scoring position. But he, too, is seeking a five-year deal, somewhere between Dean Palmer ($36 million) and Matt Williams ($45 million).

His addition would force Ripken to make his second position change in three years -- the future Hall of Famer revived at third in the second half of last season and finished with only eight errors, but Ventura won the Gold Glove.

The corner infield defense would improve -- Ripken might even be an upgrade over Palmeiro, a Gold Glover in name only. And first base could open as soon as 1999 for Calvin Pickering, Willis Otanez and even Ryan Minor.

Pickering is the Orioles' best power prospect, and deserves the chance to play a position rather than break in as a DH. Ventura would force the Orioles to either trade Minor or move him to first. Ditto for Otanez.

All that is reasonable from a player development standpoint -- Minor and Otanez aren't sure things. But again, the Belle signing would be a clear message that the Orioles want to compete. And to compete, they would need Palmeiro.

Imagine losing Palmeiro, Alomar, Davis and Surhoff and receiving nothing but draft picks in return. It could happen, and it would again point to the foolishness of keeping this team intact last summer.

Belle and Ventura would create excitement, but would anyone be fooled? The original plan was to keep Ripken at third -- it might not happen. The original plan was to move Anderson to left -- it probably won't happen. The original plan was to sign a big-time starting pitcher -- it's not going to happen.

Johnson appears headed to Anaheim or Arizona. Kevin Brown would prefer to stay in the National League. The Orioles will find another starter, find a catcher, find a second baseman. But it will amount to another ridiculous hodgepodge, a pizza with everything on it, but a terrible crust.

We're not saying the Orioles should cave to Palmeiro; we're just saying that they boxed themselves in a corner. We're not saying Robin Ventura is a bad alternative; we're just saying that he represents another contradiction.

Sign Belle, lose Palmeiro.

What's the point?

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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