Orioles' tailspin soon may eject Miller

April 19, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The Orioles are going to get worse before they get better -- if they ever get better.

That's the fallout from a weekend in Toronto that qualified as a total disaster.

Will Clark's broken thumb, suffered yesterday, and Cal Ripken's recurring back pain, which could send him to the disabled list, are exactly what a free-falling team didn't need.

Now the Orioles are lacking stability at both corners of the infield as well as in the starting rotation and bullpen.

You'd think things couldn't get worse, with the Orioles already holding the worst record in the American League.

But look out below.

There could be a managerial change soon, with Ray Miller taking the fall for the horrifying start.

There'll be personnel changes, too, if Sidney Ponson and several members of the bullpen don't get their acts together.

Add in Clark's absence and Ripken's troubles along with Juan Guzman's inconsistency and Scott Erickson's slump -- the latter two each a killer blow -- and there's so much instability in the air that it's impossible to envision things getting better any time soon.

Maybe after Miller is gone, Clark returns, Ripken's back improves, Erickson settles down, the bullpen improves, etc.

In other words, maybe by June, after the season is lost and the pressure is off.

There's certainly enough talent on the team to produce a better brand of baseball than this. It's not the AL's worst team, despite what the standings say. There are just too many quality players for it to be the AL's worst team.

But a terrible start can ruin even the best-laid plans, much less plans made hastily and without a blueprint, as in the Orioles' case this season. (Remember when their No. 1 off-season priority was to add a quality starting pitcher? What happened to that?)

The start is almost certain to cost Miller his job, even though owner Peter Angelos personally hired him and insists now that he won't fire him. In the end, Angelos isn't going to go to war over a losing manager the players don't respect.

The owner will let GM Frank Wren make the move, then say he obviously isn't the meddler people think he is, given that he let Wren fire his "oak tree."

Miller won't go quietly, that's for sure. He'll point to injuries, the previous front office, anything but his own performance. And this is a guy who pinch hit Rich Amaral for Harold Baines the other night.

No, firing Miller won't solve the pitching problems, cure the injuries or make any difference at all, possibly. But that shouldn't stop the Orioles from making the change. Miller is a fine pitching coach who knows more baseball than just about anyone, but he isn't a keen motivator or a guileful strategist. As a manager, he has lost at two places.

In other words, even if he isn't at the top of the list of what's wrong the Orioles, he isn't part of the solution, either. There's no reason not to make the change in that case.

Clark's injury won't help the manager's cause in the short term. His bat was one of the few parts of the team actually functioning as intended.

What happened to him yesterday was a fluke, a line drive breaking his thumb, but Clark was injury-prone in Texas, and few in baseball will be surprised to see him missing time. The Orioles knew that when they signed him after failing to keep Rafael Palmeiro.

As for Ripken, who knows what turns the saga of his sore back will make in the coming days? There's certainly no predicting it, as anyone with chronic back pain knows.

Given Ripken's poor start, some will think it's a good idea to get him out of there in favor of Willis Otanez. Nonsense. Ripken is near the end of his career, yes, but he has always played his way out of slumps, and the guess here is he'd play his way out of this one, at least to some degree, if his back were to cooperate.

Do you really want Otanez, a career minor-leaguer, as your everyday third baseman?

These are questions a team with an $84 million payroll shouldn't be asking, but this isn't your ordinary high-priced team. It's a team with a bullpen that can't be trusted, a team without much speed or power, a team that's average in the field at best, a team playing without any semblance of life.

It's hard to imagine things getting worse, but next on the schedule is a series with the dreaded Devil Rays, winners of two of three games in the season-opening series at Camden Yards.

At this point, even that is a frightening proposition.

What isn't?

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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