O's lineup takes shape with Conine

April 03, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

A broken-down body for a slimmed-down body. That's how you evaluate Chris Hoiles for Jeff Conine, and never mind the other particulars. Chris Fussell, a young pitcher with little chance of ever joining the Orioles' rotation, was merely the bait for Conine.

The release of Hoiles is a sad event for anyone who knew "Tractor," a humble, hard-working throwback who spent a decade in the organization after arriving in the Fred Lynn trade. Still, it had to be done. Hoiles, physically unable to catch and a liability at first base, had turned into the right-handed equivalent of Harold Baines.

The Orioles can afford to keep Baines solely as a DH -- he's a .291 lifetime hitter who never seems to lose his swing. But keeping two such one-dimensional players would have been a farce, limiting manager Ray Miller's options and creating a dangerous predicament for an aging team.

So, last night's moves made complete and utter sense, right? Not so fast. General manager Frank Wren wouldn't have needed to acquire Conine's right-handed bat if he had re-signed Eric Davis, an oversight that looks worse by the day.

Davis will earn approximately twice as much as Conine this season -- he signed a two-year deal with St. Louis for an average of $4 million. Money, however, is no object for the Orioles. They're paying $3.7 million to cover the final guaranteed year of Hoiles' contract, aren't they?

The emergence of Fussell only would compound the loss, but as with most Orioles transactions in recent seasons, the moves are best understood from a narrow perspective. Conine, 32, is 15 months younger than Hoiles -- hooray! -- and apparently in terrific shape. He should prove effective in a part-time role. Davis drove in 89 runs last season in 452 at-bats.

"He gives us a guy that can very easily step in at first base, left field, right field and DH on a regular basis," Wren said. "We're predominantly left-handed in all those spots, except right field with Albert Belle. It gives the manager flexibility against some tough lefties to throw Conine in there."

Conine weighed 226 pounds when last season ended, but over the winter he visited a nutritionist who worked with Dan Marino and other Miami Dolphins. He reduced his weight to 209, and the effect on his play was noticeable: He batted .321 in 19 games for Kansas City this spring.

Until last night, 37-year-old Rich Amaral was the only backup outfielder on the Orioles' roster. The acquisition of Conine addresses that problem, but jeopardizes Willis Otanez -- a player who drove in 100 runs at Rochester last season -- if Miller eventually goes to 12 pitchers.

The lingering question is whether the Orioles will regret losing Fussell, who was rated the team's fourth-best prospect by Baseball America in 1996 and called "the biggest surprise of the whole staff" at Triple-A Rochester last season by then-manager Marv Foley.

The Orioles have traded a startling number of young right-handed starters in recent seasons -- Scott Klingenbeck in 1995, Calvin Maduro and Garrett Stephenson in '96, Jimmy Haynes and Mike Johnson in '97, and now Fussell.

Still, the only one of those deals that figures to haunt them is Haynes-for-Geronimo Berroa. Klingenbeck and Kimera Bartee brought Scott Erickson, a stalwart of the starting rotation. Maduro and Stephenson brought Pete Incaviglia and Todd Zeile, a pair of right-handed hitters who helped the Orioles to the '96 postseason.

Fussell was disappointing in his September call-up last season, and his record above Single-A is 9-18. Maybe he'll evolve into a quality starter, but Wren's regime clearly did not value him as highly as Pat Gillick's, viewing Doug Linton, Dave Evans and newly acquired Jason Johnson as better emergency options.

As for the future, Erickson is signed through 2003, and the Orioles are likely to extend Mike Mussina at least that long. Sidney Ponson also is under the team's control through 2003, and Matt Riley should be ready to join the rotation in two years. That's a strong nucleus, as long as Ponson and Riley develop.

If Conine plays well and the Orioles return to the postseason, then the trade is a winner, no matter what Fussell accomplishes. Conine played only 93 games last season -- 38 fewer than Davis -- due to a strained abdominal muscle, strained left wrist and sore back. But physically, he is back to his All-Star form of 1995, Wren said.

Conine is no more than an average fielder at any position, but he batted .310 against left-handed pitching over the past five seasons -- 28 points higher than Hoiles. He's also decent in the clutch -- his .319 average with runners in scoring position last season was 63 points higher than his overall average.

Wren grew familiar with Conine during his tenure as the Florida Marlins' assistant GM, just as he grew familiar with Charles Johnson. Both players were members of the Marlins' world championship team in 1997. They should understand what it takes to win.

You can bemoan the failure to re-sign Davis, fret over the loss of Fussell, but it's difficult to quibble with Hoiles for Conine. In the Orioles' win-now world, there is only one question that matters. Are they a better team today than they were yesterday? The answer is yes.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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