Pot luck O's: leftovers with no real recipe

December 06, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles have gone and bought a new team, which is better than not buying a new team, as has happened in Boston in the wake of Mo Vaughn's departure. But are the Yankees quaking with fear at the Orioles' new lineup? Hardly.

What the Orioles have done is patch together a team composed of parts of other teams: a dash of the White Sox here, a pinch of the Cardinals there, a splash of the Rangers and Mariners on top. Call them the Pot Luck Orioles, a Rotisserie-style dish concocted out of desperation.

There was no grand design that came together, no deep theoretical convictions that leaped off a blueprint and became a reality.

The Orioles just signed whoever would take their money, basically.

Remember when their off-season priorities were to add a top starting pitcher, keep Rafael Palmeiro and move Brady Anderson to left field? Oh, well, didn't happen. But Albert Belle, Delino DeShields and Will Clark, come on down!

It's no way to build a stable, winning organization, but it's how the Orioles have operated in recent years and it's how they'll continue to operate until they start growing some major-league talent of their own.

Yes, you have to spend to win today, as evidenced by a 1998 season in which the Orioles were the only loser among the 13 teams with payrolls of $48 million or more. Only two of the 17 teams with payrolls below $48 million finished better than .500.

But even in an age when money so clearly determines success and failure, the best teams still blend in homegrown talent with their key free agents. Look at the Yankees with Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, among others. Or the Indians with Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon. Or the Rangers with Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez.

The moral? You can't buy a whole team. And that's what the Orioles are trying to do.

Don't blame new GM Frank Wren, who was hired late and asked to make over a creaking, dysfunctional team within weeks -- and without an assistant GM -- while the free-agent market was spinning wildly out of control.

Given those impossible circumstances, Wren has performed admirably. He has put together a respectable team with last week's signings of Belle, DeShields, Clark and B. J. Surhoff. And his trade of Armando Benitez for Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson was brilliant.

Nor was Wren wrong to deem that Calvin Pickering, Jerry Hairston and Ryan Minor needed another year of seasoning in the minor leagues, if not more. That's a sound, conservative approach. Why rush the club's first quality position prospects in years?

Of course, Wren was willing to bury Pickering's future with a five-year contract for Palmeiro. And the three-year contract DeShields signed did a pretty good job of burying Hairston. That's the wrong approach.

If the Orioles are ever going to become a consistent winner again, they need to learn to clear space for their prospects instead of layering over them. They need to stop filling short-term needs with long-term solutions of debatable merit, such as DeShields.

In that regard, signing Clark to a two-year deal yesterday was better for the organization's overall health than signing Palmeiro for five years.

Yes, Palmeiro obviously will be missed. He and Belle would have been a formidable pair. But his makeup is that of a supporting cast member, not a lead role. You don't throw your biggest money at those players. Nor do you win with them.

Whatever Palmeiro's reasons were for defecting to Texas, the Orioles are lucky he did.

Of course, that defection leaves 1999 looking less promising. Is Wren's new, rushed creation any better than last year's disappointment? Who knows? It's not an elite team, that's for sure. It's a team with major holes and questions.

Where is the defensive excellence other than at catcher (Johnson) and shortstop (Mike Bordick)? Where is the exceptional range? There's every reason to believe this will be an average defensive team.

Where is the threatening right-handed hitter other than Belle? It's a lineup long on lefties, which could lead to troubling late-inning matchups for manager Ray Miller.

Where is the classic No. 2 hitter? Where is the speed other than DeShields and Anderson?

And we haven't even gotten to the pitching.

The rotation is solid enough at the top with Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman, although let's not get carried away since they have only one 20-win season among them.

Another top starter would create a forbidding rotation, but it hasn't happened. And Kevin Brown isn't coming, folks.

As for the bullpen, that's still a work in progress. Mike Timlin is the only right-hander as of now, and he's cast as the closer even though he has spent most of his career in setup roles. Arthur Rhodes, prone to injury, and Jesse Orosco, 41, are the lefties.

More spare parts from other teams are on the way, in other words. A dash of the Phillies, perhaps, or maybe a pinch of the Mets? Who knows?

In any case, it's good that the Orioles have rebuilt instead of freezing and falling behind, as have the Red Sox since Vaughn left. No, the end result isn't better than the Yankees, Indians, Angels or Rangers. But the Orioles are probably the best of the rest in the American League. So things could be worse.

Then again, things aren't going to get much better on a consistent basis until the organization learns to make its prospects a priority instead of a pain.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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