Clemens, Brown would do in a pitch

December 11, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Kevin Brown or Roger Clemens? Which should the Orioles add to their rotation?

How about either?

The Orioles apparently are lagging far behind in the race for Clemens, who lives outside Houston and probably will end up with the Astros. Brown? He's probably more serious about the Los Angeles Dodgers and several other National League teams than the Orioles.

In other words, the Orioles will be lucky if either is pitching for them next season.

If they sign Brown, terrific. If they reel in the long shot and trade for Clemens, terrific. Either would transform their rotation into one of baseball's best while making the Orioles the favorite in the American League wild-card race. Hey, the Yankees might even notice.

But don't get too excited. The Toronto Blue Jays, Clemens and his agents will decide where Clemens goes. And Brown is sitting on a stack of mega-offers that still might grow. In other words, the Orioles are just along for the ride here. They can only hope.

Brown probably makes more sense for the Orioles in that he's 31 months younger than Clemens, 36, and would cost only money, which the Orioles have in abundance. The Blue Jays want three or four players for Clemens, and the names of several of the Orioles' top prospects have come up. Boo to that.

Yet Clemens makes more sense in that he's the better pitcher, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and winner of the American League's Cy Young Award in each of the past two seasons. Why not the best? Clemens' presence really would energize the 1999 season around here.

Of course, it's doubtful the Orioles are even a factor in the race for Clemens, who wants to be traded to a contender or a team in Texas. But as unlikely as things look now, who knows what might happen in this wild off-season? What if Brown signs elsewhere? The Orioles could step up their pursuit of Clemens.

In any case, it's to the Orioles' credit that they have tried to bull their way into the running for Clemens by offering a package of players. Whatever the Orioles' organizational sins, their commitment to winning is above question.

But if infield prospects Ryan Minor and Jerry Hairston are among the players the Blue Jays want -- still not a certainty -- the trade isn't as attractive.

Dealing Minor, a third baseman, and Hairston, a second baseman, would hinder hopes of the Orioles establishing a more stable operation that blends rented stars and free agents with home-grown prospects. Otherwise, they're still stuck on the treadmill of patching together a new team every few years.

Given that, it would be a shame to deal Minor, Hairston or first baseman Calvin Pickering, all regarded as the organization's best position prospects in years. After so many dry and hurtful years, it's time for the Orioles to grow their own.

On the other hand, the Orioles no longer seem to view Minor as an untouchable after he struggled at Double-A last season. And Hairston, though still highly regarded, had some problems in the Arizona Fall League. There's a chance neither will blossom. The price for acquiring Clemens could amount to a steal. Quite a temptation.

Clemens is a miraculous athlete, having rebounded from a mediocre ending to his career in Boston (a 29-25 record in his last three seasons) to become the AL's best pitcher. It's all a testimony to his fierce will. He wanted to prove the Red Sox wrong for letting him leave town. Did he ever.

Now he wants to pitch for a team with a chance to go all the way. He wants a World Series ring.

If he wants it as badly as he wanted to prove the Red Sox wrong, look out.

Not that he wouldn't come without serious risks. At his age, after more than 3,000 major-league innings, he could start breaking down any day. He also could begin to tail off after the brilliance of the past two seasons.

Brown has thrown more than a thousand fewer major-league innings. He has blossomed since leaving the Orioles after going 10-9 in 1995. If you have watched him in the playoffs the past two years, you know why the Orioles want him back. Steady in the clutch, with a tenacious mound presence, he has led the Marlins and Padres to the World Series.

Signing him is the way to achieve a short-term gain (an elite pitcher) without suffering long-term losses (prospects). So maybe he makes more sense.

On the other hand, he turns 34 in March and it's going to take something like a six-year, $80 million contract to sign him. That's borderline crazy for a pitcher who hasn't won 20 games in a season since 1992.

The Orioles are going to go for it, though, regardless if it makes sense. And that's fine. They need to go for it. Even with all the questions about their defensive range, their bullpen and their reliance on left-handed hitters, they'd stand an excellent chance of making the playoffs with a rotation featuring Brown and Mike Mussina at the top.

It's all about pitching, in the end. And the Orioles can't be choosy. Brown or Clemens? Either would do, thank you.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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