By default, big-spending O's should finish in the money

February 21, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

For a team with one of the largest payrolls in baseball history, the Orioles have a lot of major questions to answer as they embark on the 1999 season.

Will their revamped bullpen hold up? Does Albert Belle have enough protection in the middle of the lineup? Is the defense sound? Can Will Clark replace Rafael Palmeiro? Can Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman combine for more than 39 wins at the top of the rotation?

A team with an estimated $78 million payroll shouldn't have nearly so many unanswered questions, but it's funny: As imperfect as they are, the Orioles are still in better shape than a lot of the American League.

No, they're not better than the Yankees, whose remarkable 1998 team is returning virtually intact, only with Roger Clemens exchanged for David Wells. Only complacency, bad luck and the effects of age will keep the Yankees from dominating again.

But other than the Yankees, the Orioles aren't clearly inferior to anyone -- not even the Indians, who failed again to land a No. 1 starter in the off-season -- and they're better than the small-market, small-payroll teams that aren't even trying to win.

The result? The Orioles should do no worse than contend for a wild-card berth this season, even if some of their many questions are answered negatively.

That's not a credit to the Orioles so much as a discredit to a sport with horrid economic problems; only in baseball can a team all but guarantee itself a competitive season by spending freely, if not always wisely.

The Orioles have done just that, throwing scads of money at their problems. They started out wanting to add a starting pitcher and center fielder, and wound up adding Belle, Clark, Mike Timlin, Charles Johnson, Delino DeShields and others -- a far cry from Plan A.

But don't complain too hard. It beats what's happening in Kansas City, Minnesota and elsewhere in small-market land. Fans of those downsized teams would love to spend the spring worrying about such details as how to protect Belle's bat.

At the very least, the Orioles have spent their way past those teams and mediocrities such as the White Sox, and into a wild-card race with the Angels or Rangers and also possibly the Red Sox or Blue Jays.

Who knows what could happen then? The Red Sox, who have a major hole to fill with Mo Vaughn's departure, could self-destruct. The Rangers added Palmeiro to an imposing lineup, but as always, their pitching is debatable. The Angels added Vaughn, but they only won 85 games last year. The Blue Jays were a surprise a year ago, but they won't be as strong without Clemens.

The Orioles can run with that company even if they get the right answers to only some questions.

Of course, some questions are more important than others. The state of the bullpen, for instance. That's what the Orioles really need to go right. Timlin isn't a proven closer, and the loss of Xavier Hernandez, who failed his physical, forced GM Frank Wren to settle for Mike Fetters and Heathcliff Slocumb.

Hold your breath.

The club also could use more luck at the top of the rotation, namely a season without freak injuries for Mussina. He used up a career's worth of bad luck in 1998, what with the warts on his finger and the line drive he took off his head, so the odds are in his favor.

Actually, the entire top of the rotation needs to deliver more. Erickson won 16 games in 1998, but he has the stuff to win 20. Guzman lost 16 of his 33 starts for the Blue Jays and Orioles. He has to improve.

The defense was one of the few strengths in 1998, but there are multiple questions now. Can Belle handle right field? Can Brady Anderson return to form in center? Do Clark and DeShields have enough range? Can Cal Ripken still play third?

Only Johnson, the new catcher, and shortstop Mike Bordick are of Gold Glove quality.

Again, hold your breath.

The offense figures to be sound, even though Palmeiro's defection wrecked a potentially devastating one-two punch with Belle.

No, there isn't a classic No. 2 hitter, and the presence of Clark, who has averaged 15 homers over the past seven seasons, won't guarantee that Belle sees many good pitches. But Belle is bound to tear up Camden Yards after his obligatory slow start. He should carry the offense.

As for the potentially volatile mix of strong personalities such as Belle and Clark, who cares? After the Orioles slept through 1998 as the defending division champ, they needed new life in any form. If a few water coolers get turned over along the way, terrific. It's nice to see someone care.

It would be nice to report that the Orioles had assured themselves of more with their latest spending spree, but that's just not the case. The potential for a playoff run is there, but only that.

Still, given the quality of the rest of the AL, the Orioles should do no worse than compete for a wild-card berth into August and September, even if some things go wrong. It's almost impossible for them not to compete, actually. That's the kind of guarantee that money buys in baseball these days.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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