O's challenge: Finding a taker for Belle

July 21, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Getting Albert Belle to renounce the no-trade clause in his contract obviously makes it easier for the Orioles to unload him, but now comes the tough part: Finding a team willing to take Belle, his reputation and his massive contract.

There are plenty of candidates, but finding one willing to pay Belle $10 million annually through 2003, with the Orioles assuming the other $3 million a season in deferred money, won't be easy.

Basically, the Orioles need to find another team willing to make the same mistakes they did in believing that Belle's bat would be worth the trouble he caused, and that a new environment would turn him into a positive clubhouse influence.

That's not going to happen here. Sure, his bat appears to be heating up after a disappointing first half -- he hit another homer last night -- but it's already too late to matter. The Orioles are in last place in the American League East, on the verge of a clubhouse purge. If Belle winds up accumulating big numbers in 1999, they'll be garbage-time numbers.

And as for the impact of a new environment on him, well, the home fans are booing him, the front office is tired of his act and his teammates aren't exactly rushing to his defense. It appears things aren't working out so well.

Belle, 32, was given every chance to start over here, in a town so desperate for a winner than it gave him a standing ovation on Opening Day.

He's blown the chance in half a season.

Forget about the new sign on his locker, the one saying he still has 4 1/2 years to go here. That's a bad idea.

The sooner he's dumped, the better.

The Orioles can minimize the damage at least somewhat if they find a taker for Belle and admit they erred in judging him as a rightful heir to the franchise's good name.

But is anyone out there willing to assume a salary obligation of more than $40 million for a troublesome outfielder having an off year?

Actually, there are all sorts of teams that might consider it, for a variety of reasons.

No team needs him more than the Red Sox, who are leading the wild-card race with the league's ninth-ranked offense. They desperately need a power anchor in their lineup, particularly since Pedro Martinez has confessed to a sore arm, raising the possibility that their pitching might not hold up as well down the stretch.

But the Sox don't have a big-market payroll because of the limitations of Fenway Park, so they're extremely careful with their free-agent signings. Yes, they considered signing Belle in the off-season, but that was when he was coming off his career season last year in Chicago. He's not quite as attractive in the middle of a season in which he's collected only nine doubles.

Who else needs him? Well, the Yankees have struggled for three seasons to find a left fielder who can play every day and produce. Adding Belle to their lineup could be the stroke that puts them back in the World Series.

By the same token, they won 125 games without Belle last season, and it's doubtful they'd tamper with their chemistry by adding a player so prone to controversy. Just try to imagine Belle putting up his little hand-written signs in the Yankees' clubhouse. Can't see it, can you?

Another possibility, and maybe a better one, is the White Sox, the team Belle played for in 1997 and 1998. Don't think it makes sense? Think again.

They're a surprise wild-card contender, just five losses behind the Red Sox. Belle had two relatively quiet, productive years there, delivering huge numbers. He gets along extremely well with Sox manager Jerry Manuel. And while the Sox aren't drawing well, they do have Jerry Reinsdorf's millions backing them. They can afford to swallow the big salary.

It's not the craziest of ideas.

Other possibilities? Well, the Dodgers, with their seemingly limitless resources, are always a threat to take such a gamble for the sake of mounting a late-season playoff run. Who knows what orders Fox's executives might give?

The Giants also could stand to add a bat to improve their chances in the National League West, but they won't join the mega-payroll club until they move into their new ballpark next year, so it's doubtful they'd take an expensive gamble with such long-term implications.

The Indians? Cleveland's front office wouldn't do that to their fans. And they need pitching, anyway, not hitting.

The Braves? They need a leadoff hitter, not another slugger.

Getting the picture? It's not going to be easy.

The chances of making a trade probably are better in the off-season, when teams sometimes rethink their salary blueprints and look for major additions.

Finding a team willing to take on so much salary now, in the middle of the season, will be a challenge.

But getting Belle to renounce his no-trade clause wasn't easy, and the Orioles did it.

Now let's see them complete the deal.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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