Off-season has led O's to off year

May 15, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

ARLINGTON, Texas -- They asked Rafael Palmeiro to consider playing right field. They signed Albert Belle to keep him away from the New York Yankees.

They guaranteed two years to the injury-prone Will Clark but not the injury-prone Eric Davis. They backed off one of their initial priorities, moving Brady Anderson out of center field.

And they failed to upgrade their starting pitching.

The more you look at the Orioles' off-season, the more it boggles the mind, and the easier it is to understand how they've compiled the worst record in the American League.

They considered signing Robin Ventura to play third base, moving Cal Ripken to first and putting Palmeiro in right, a position he hadn't played since 1988.

And owner Peter Angelos repeated this week that they signed Belle to prevent the defending world champion Yankees from getting stronger, as if the Orioles could seriously compete with a team that finished 35 games ahead of them last season.

If anything, the Yankees might have been weaker if they had signed Belle and lost Bernie Williams to the Boston Red Sox -- the switch-hitting Williams doesn't hit for as much power as Belle, but he's essential to the Yankees' chemistry and a defensive asset in center field.

Whatever, the Orioles were in no position to worry so much about their division rivals, especially not when they had alienated Palmeiro to the point where he wanted to return home to Texas.

Palmeiro exacted his first measure of revenge last night, hitting a two-out, two-run double to break a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning and lift the Rangers to a 7-6 victory over the Orioles.

Before the game, Palmeiro said that the Orioles' overtures about right field did not influence him to return to Texas, explaining, "That's not why I made my decision. That didn't really carry much weight."

But did the Rangers ask him to play right?

"They have more respect for me than that," Palmeiro said.

The season-long delay in negotiations, the halting talks once he became a free agent, the Orioles' uncertainty at so many positions -- Palmeiro described an accumulation of slights and shortcomings that led to his departure.

He didn't include the Cuba series, from which he would have declined to participate as the son of Cuban immigrants who fled from the Fidel Castro regime.

"They were talking about [Calvin] Pickering. They said they were going to give some of their young guys a chance," Palmeiro said. "I told them, `If it's going make our team better, I'll do it. I know people say I'm selfish, but I'll do it. If I want to be part of this team for the next four or five years, I'll do it.'

"I didn't think it would make us better. I'm not a good outfielder. But I felt like when they made their four-year offer [the second in a series of proposals], they made it under the condition that I would consider playing right field."

General manager Frank Wren did not dispute Palmeiro's account, but said the idea of moving him to right field was merely raised as a future possibility.

"We just wanted to see what our options would be," Wren said. "We knew we had Pickering coming. But from my standpoint, it was not a serious consideration. I did not think that was the right position for him."

Moving from first to the outfield is not the normal career path for an aging player, but the Belle signing ended any chance of Palmeiro making the switch -- he would have stayed at first if he had re-signed, with Ripken remaining at third.

Plan A, of course, did not even involve Belle. Plan A was to sign Brian Jordan to play center, re-sign B. J. Surhoff to play right and move Anderson to left. But Jordan went to Atlanta and Anderson stayed in center, where his decline has accelerated this season.

Only when the Yankees began pursuing Belle did the Orioles grow interested in the slugger -- a classic case of reacting instead of acting, allowing competitors to cloud your judgment.

"I am not prepared to let Baltimore become a doormat for the Yankees," Angelos said shortly before the Belle signing. "There's a certain risk involved, but also a certain likelihood of reward."

Whatever his faults, Angelos is willing to spend whatever it takes to produce a winner. He told the Washington Post this week that the team will lose about $10 million this season, but added that the losses won't alter the club's operating philosophy.

The Orioles' $84 million payroll is the second highest in the majors, in part because Angelos exceeded his previous salary limit of $7 million to sign Belle to a five-year, $65 million deal that includes $15 million in deferred money with no interest.

"The reason we went over the $7 million mark for one player is because Albert Belle was ready to sign with the Yankees," Angelos told the Post. "I was convinced that if he signed with the Yankees, they would become invincible from a standpoint of run production. I figured it was time for us to make a move."

Angelos added that the deferred money helped make the Belle contract "a pretty sharp deal no else does that." But the Orioles' mammoth offer persuaded the Yankees to re-sign Williams, leaving no other bidders.

Clearly, there are other ways that the Orioles could have allocated Belle's millions -- and Delino DeShields' for that matter. They needed pitching. They needed a center fielder. They didn't need a $13 million man.

They knew all that entering the off-season, but one thing led to another, and here they are. Second in the majors in payroll, last in the American League.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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