Orioles in playoffs? Closer to fantasy than reality

April 04, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

All fans have an inalienable right to be optimistic at the start of a new baseball season, regardless of whether they root for a contender or pretender, live in a large market or small.

Orioles fans can find reasons to be optimistic in 1999 -- the front end of the starting rotation, the additions of Albert Belle and Charles Johnson, the eternal grit of B. J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick.

But from a realistic point of view, this team has so many questions, it's difficult to imagine it seriously contending for a postseason berth.

Not impossible.

Difficult.

The Orioles should contend if Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman combine for 50 wins, if Brady Anderson rebounds from an injury-marred season, if Belle gets enough pitches to hit, if Mike Timlin proves to be a quality closer.

All of that is possible, as are any number of other positive scenarios. Cal Ripken could benefit from occasional days off. Will Clark might thrive along with Belle at Camden Yards. Johnson almost certainly will improve the pitching staff and up-the-middle defense.

Still, the best way to assess a team coming out of spring training is to examine what can go wrong. Every team considers such questions, even the defending world champion Yankees. But for a team with an $81.5 million payroll, the Orioles face an astonishing number.

This is again an old team. It is a team with a dangerously thin rotation. A team that will play average defense at best. A team with a potentially feeble lineup, a highly suspect bullpen and an unproven manager.

The Orioles can overcome some of these deficiencies.

They won't overcome all of them.

Injuries already are a concern -- Rich Amaral (back), Jeff Reboulet (heel), and Scott Kamieniecki (hamstring) all have experienced physical problems this spring. Amaral is 37; Reboulet and Kamieniecki turn 35 this month.

As Mussina and Delino DeShields can attest, freak injuries happen. But it's a fact that older players are more frequently hurt. The Orioles no longer can use injuries as an excuse. The way this team is constructed, injuries are simply part of the equation.

Last year's pitching staff unraveled when Mussina, Kamieniecki and Jimmy Key got hurt, forcing manager Ray Miller to use inferior starters, yank them early in the early innings and overwork his relievers.

No question, the Orioles are due for better luck. But given the medical histories of Guzman and Kamieniecki, and the questions surrounding the bullpen, no one should be surprised if the pitching again falters.

Timlin, Heathcliff Slocumb, Mike Fetters, Ricky Bones -- who are these people and what are they doing in Orioles uniforms? That question could become prominent quickly, with Guzman, Kamieniecki and Sidney Ponson essentially six-inning pitchers.

New general manager Frank Wren had no choice but to reconstruct the bullpen -- Armando Benitez needed a change, and Alan Mills left for Los Angeles. But let's not pretend this is a playoff-caliber group. Timlin and Slocumb had their big second halves last season only after the pressure was off in Seattle.

The bullpen crisis, you can almost see it coming. The offensive and defensive holes are more subtle, but potentially just as significant.

In Miller's projected lineup, two bottom-of-the-order hitters -- Bordick and Ripken -- could wind up in the Nos. 2 and 6 spots. Clark, an indispensable cog, is frequently hurt. Harold Baines, the principal DH, is 40.

The presence of Belle could mask any number of weaknesses, but the real key is Anderson, entering his eighth season in the leadoff spot. Simply put, the Orioles are at their best when Anderson is healthy and productive and scoring runs.

A comeback season by Anderson is critical in another respect -- Wren wanted him out of center field, and so did the previous GM, Pat Gillick.

Can Anderson still play the position, or not?

The larger question now is whether Belle can adapt to right. And the larger concern with Anderson is that he might get hurt -- without Eric Davis and Jeffrey Hammonds, the Orioles lack a competent backup in center.

For some reason, Wren believes the defense might actually be superior to last season's, when the Orioles committed the fewest errors in the majors. There is no basis for that claim, other than the addition of Johnson. Clark and DeShields are downgrades at first and second, and Ripken is in decline at third.

Add it all up, and the Orioles aren't as good as the Yankees (duh), and maybe not as good as the emerging Blue Jays, now that Jim Fregosi has replaced Tim Johnson as manager.

Fregosi led the '93 Phillies to the World Series. Miller is 188-213 with the Twins and Orioles.

But guess what?

This time, it might not be Miller's fault.

He failed to hold a volatile group together last season, and faces an even more combustible mix this season. The pressure will start to mount if the Orioles are below .500 in May. But the truth is, that might be the record this team deserves.

Would former Oriole Don Baylor leave his new position as Atlanta's hitting coach to manage a flawed, aging team? Or would owner Peter Angelos name one of Miller's coaches as an interim, then search for a new manager at season's end?

The Orioles probably can avoid such questions by hovering around .500 and giving the appearance of wild-card contention -- a real possibility, given the weakened state of the American League.

The bottom line?

In '97, it was realistic to be optimistic, and we could safely predict a division title. In '99, it would take an awful lot to go right for the Orioles to secure even a wild card.

Most likely, they'll finish with between 78 and 84 wins.

This team doesn't appear capable of more.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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