Taking stock of likely Sele investment

January 08, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Once again, the Orioles are trying to buy their way into contention. Only time would tell if the pending signing of Aaron Sele would transform them into a legitimate postseason threat, or merely serve to inflate an already bloated payroll.

The team's recent history would suggest the latter, but the Orioles will open the 2000 season with a new manager, an almost totally new bullpen, and, if Sele passes his physical, a new No. 3 starter. They would be interesting, at least at the start. With a little luck, they might even be good enough to win 85 games.

The addition of Sele would push back Sidney Ponson to No. 4 in the rotation and Jason Johnson to No. 5 while buying time for the organization's top prospect, left-hander Matt Riley. But the same rival executives who wonder how the Orioles can pay Buddy Groom $4 million for two years will wonder why they are willing to give Sele $29 million for four, pending the results of the physical he took yesterday in Baltimore.

The present-day value of Sele's contract would lower to approximately $26.8 million if you included his deferred money without interest. Thus, the deal could prove as "reasonable" as the five-year, $32 million extension that Scott Erickson signed in May 1998. Sele, 29, is nearly eight years younger than another free- agent pitcher the Orioles pursued, left-hander Chuck Finley.

Of course, there's just one problem with giving Sele $7.25 million per season -- he would become the highest- paid pitcher in Orioles history, earning more than even Mike Mussina. How could the Orioles in good conscience enter the season with Mussina their second- highest-paid pitcher on their staff? They couldn't, and an extension for Mussina should be an urgent priority.

Spending money is never a problem for this ownership, even with the disincentive of a luxury tax. The question with Sele would be whether the Orioles are spending wisely. Left-hander Darren Oliver seems a more natural fit for their all-right-handed rotation. Too bad Oliver's agent, Scott Boras, is on the warehouse enemies' list.

Sele's former team, the Texas Rangers, declined to offer him more than $28 million. The team closest to his home in Kirkland, Wash., the Seattle Mariners, declined to offer him more than three years while signing the fragile Arthur Rhodes for four.

What do Doug Melvin and Pat Gillick know that the Orioles don't?

Uh, next question.

Sele won 37 games in his two years with Texas, the same number as Greg Maddux, one more than Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson. He also produced back-to-back 200-inning seasons, and that durability likely would prove valuable to the Orioles given the uncertain state of their bullpen.

Perhaps most important, Sele would appear suited to Camden Yards, where routine fly balls often leave the park. His arrival would give the Orioles three of the top eight American League pitchers last season in ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Erickson ranked first in that department, Sele third and Mussina eighth.

Now, the bad news:

Many in baseball suspect that Sele benefited from being in the right place at the right time with the high-scoring Rangers. He had the AL's fourth highest run support per nine innings (6.69) in 1998, and the third highest (7.46) in 1999. Could the Orioles provide the same foundation? They scored 94 fewer runs than the Rangers last season.

Equally alarming is the number of hits Sele allows -- well above one per inning in each of his past two seasons, and throughout his career. True, he gave up only 21 homers in 205 innings last season. But he also gave up 56 doubles, most in the AL. How many of those would have cleared the fences if he had pitched in a smaller ballpark?

Sele wouldn't be another Sid Fernandez, but consider how he compared with Erickson last season. The two right-handers allowed the same number of hits (244, tied for second-most in the AL), but Erickson pitched 25 1/3 more innings. His 4.81 ERA was only slightly higher than Sele's 4.79. And Orioles fans would agree that Erickson had a decidedly off year.

Sele doesn't carry the reputation of a big-game pitcher -- he's 0-2 with a 5.73 ERA in two Division Series starts against the Yankees. But as a No. 3 starter -- or an eventual No. 4 behind Ponson -- he would offer more consistency than Juan Guzman. Heck, new manager Mike Hargrove might still be in Cleveland if Mussina, Erickson and Sele had been his top three starters.

Hargrove will have other problems in Baltimore -- an aging roster, a bullpen without a closer, an infield that will include the oft-injured Will Clark and surgically repaired Cal Ripken. Ground-ball pitchers require a strong infield defense. The Orioles should be solid up the middle if Jerry Hairston replaces Delino DeShields at second, but the range at the corners might be problematic.

Even with Sele, could this team honestly consider itself a contender? Not when its bullpen appears only marginally better than last season's. But hey, it's only January, and another free agent is ready to wear black and orange. The Orioles never run out of green.

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