'99 O's let their wrongs trump rights

October 02, 1999|By John Eisenberg

A lot of things went right for the Orioles this season. Career-year performances from B. J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick. A combined 45 wins from Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson, the top three starters. Strong offensive seasons from Albert Belle, Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken, and also Harold Baines before he was traded.

So, what does it mean that so much went right for a team out of playoff contention by the All-Star break and threatening to finish last in the American League East before a meaningless September surge?

It means what went wrong was really wrong.

A team that finishes so far out despite having the AL's fewest errors, fourth-lowest ERA and fifth-highest batting average might have subtle problems more than obvious ones -- but they're major problems, nonetheless.

In the Orioles' case, it's the bullpen, overall inconsistency, the manager and a lack of speed, youth and hunger. All are issues that must be addressed before next season, because many of the players who had strong offensive seasons will be 35 or older next year, so you can't expect as much from them.

There's only so much Orioles general manager Frank Wren can do with so many veterans already signed for 2000 and beyond. But a team that wastes so many strong individual performances obviously needs rewiring, and Wren does have room to do it.

He can make Jerry Hairston the second baseman, for instance. Period. End of issue. Signing Delino DeShields to a three-year contract was a mistake, but don't compound it another year. If DeShields can't be traded, just dump him. Hairston adds youth, speed, range and energy, four commodities the team needs. He has to play.

None of the other call-ups has played his way onto next year's team, but they still merit long looks in the spring because, if anything, like Hairston, they bring an urgency and versatility that's been lacking.

Calvin Pickering, in particular, warrants a look. Regarded as the Orioles' top prospect a year ago, he slipped this year, but there's no use giving him another year in the minor leagues. It's time to find out if he can he play in the majors.

He doesn't have to play every day, but he could be the left-handed part of a platoon, replacing another signing mistake, Will Clark.

The Orioles are never going to become a consistent contender again until they start giving their best, young players a chance, as do the Yankees, Braves and Indians.

A little hunger wouldn't hurt, would it?

Hey, maybe it's just what the Orioles need to avoid leading the AL in runners left on base, as they did this season.

Then there's the bullpen, the biggest concern in the wake of this season. It was the one wrong thing about the Orioles that wasn't subtle in the least. In fact, it was about as subtle as a sudden explosion, which is exactly what it created before the All-Star break, when it was on a pace to set a major league record for blown saves. Day after day, the 'pen took leads and blew them up.

It managed to right itself after the All-Star break, but its run of success in insignificant games doesn't mean it shouldn't be completely torn up and rebuilt for next season.

Ideally, closer Mike Timlin would be recast as a setup man, the job he has held for most of his career. Another year has passed, and there's still no evidence he can close games for a contender. Maybe newcomer B. J. Ryan could be fitted for the job, or Gabe Molina, or someone else in the minor-league system.

Timlin probably will keep the job because of his big contract and strong second-half performance, but after the way he blew games when the pressure was on before the All-Star break, the Orioles would be negligent not to have Plans B, C, and D ready.

Actually, maybe Timlin could be traded now that he has pitched well for a few months.

Regardless, the rest of the 'pen also needs to be addressed, starting with the issue of whether to bring back Arthur Rhodes. He's going to want more money than he deserves after one of his poorer seasons, but there aren't many, other powerful left-handed relievers out there, which means Rhodes basically can't be replaced.

Letting Alan Mills go after last season was a mistake, and letting Rhodes go now would be a mistake, too.

Every other bullpen job should be up for grabs.

As for the manager, that's an issue that has been covered to exhaustion. Ray Miller probably is out after this weekend's season-ending series with the Red Sox, and although a poor season is always the players' fault more than the manager's fault, it's time for a change. Miller's tactical skills were debatable, and he has lost his players' faith. There's no getting that back.

A new manager with better leadership skills won't nearly make up for all that went wrong this season, but it would help.

Years from now, the Orioles' last season of the century surely will be regarded as a strange creature. Having an $84 million payroll didn't help. Nor did a string of strong individual seasons.

For many reasons, the whole was far less than the sum of the parts.

Wasting a season when so much went right wasn't easy. But somehow, the Orioles did it.

Pub Date: 10/02/99

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