Consider loss of Sele a gain of flexibility

January 12, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Losing Aaron Sele under embarrassing circumstances won't help the Orioles rebuild their reputation, which, to be kind, isn't what it used to be.

But the irony of the debacle is that they saved themselves from themselves, however unwittingly, when they balked and watched Sele fly away to Seattle on Monday night.

The four-year, $29 million deal they offered Sele last week, seemingly locking him up, would have ended up as just another long-term deal quickly regretted, alongside those given to Albert Belle, Mike Timlin, Delino DeShields and Brady Anderson, among others.

Two years for an average pitcher such as Sele made sense, which was why Seattle GM Pat Gillick was crowing after getting Sele's signature on a two-year, $15 million deal.

Four years? That was an investment in mediocrity the Orioles didn't need to make.

True, you can never have enough pitching, and the revenue-rich Orioles can spend as much as they want without suffering, so in a sense, there was no real downside to signing Sele.

But if the disappointment of the past two seasons proved anything, it's that the Orioles need to start being as smart as they are rich. Or at least try.

Along those lines, it's tough to decide what's more disturbing, that the Orioles lost Sele because of questions about his arm that troubled no one else or that they were ready and willing to make him the highest-paid pitcher in club history on a per-season basis.

That would have made it harder for the club to commit to better pitchers who will be on the open market in coming years.

Better to wait and shoot for higher quality than settle for a dubious last resort in a terrible year for free-agent pitchers.

How do you think they ended up in their current predicament, stuck with an aging, overpaid, inflexible club coming off a fourth-place finish in 1999? They got here by impulse shopping instead of prudently investing, by repeatedly filling short-term needs with long-term solutions, leaving them unable to adjust when circumstances change, as they always do.

DeShields became expendable when Jerry Hairston proved ready at second base last season, but DeShields has two years left on his contract. And what do Anderson, Belle and Timlin have in common? The Orioles would love to cut each of their contracts in half.

Signing Sele through 2003 would have ended up as the same kind of mistake.

Yes, the Orioles need another starter in the middle of their rotation, and Sele, 29, probably could have filled that role in some measure, at least for a year or two. He has more wins than Mike Mussina over the past three seasons, so he can pitch a little.

But his record is misleading, to say the least. He has a 50-32 record over the past three seasons, but he also has a 4.76 ERA, having allowed 679 hits in 595 innings. Dominating, he isn't.

How did he win so many games despite getting hit so hard? Well, in Boston in 1997 and then again in Texas in 1998 and 1999, he pitched for teams that led the American League in hitting. When he won 18 games last season, only two other AL pitchers had more run support.

The league's ERA in 1999 was 4.86, and Sele's was 4.79, almost identical.

Basically, he was an average pitcher on a big-hitting, division-winning team.

That three teams still offered him four-year deals worth at least $28 million says volumes about how far the standards of major-league pitching have dropped. But it doesn't mean Sele is better than a No. 4 starter or a No. 3 at best.

Don't misunderstand, he's a capable major-leaguer who can chew up innings without embarrassing a club, but he's not a difference-maker by any stretch. Not a guy whose impact warranted a four-year deal.

This is one of those times when the Orioles are better off cutting a corner with, say, a Steve Trachsel, who lost 18 games for the Cubs last season, but has a lower career ERA than Sele and gave up fewer hits in the same number of inningslast year.

You could get him for one year, which would make him hungrier. Then you could see how he worked out and, either way, have more flexibility after next season.

That's better than locking up another roster spot for too long with another player signed only because he happens to be available at the right time at a position where the Orioles need help.

That kind of thinking has landed the Orioles in their current, locked-in situation, from which it might take them years to escape.

Signing Sele would have gummed things up even more when, if anything, they need to start having more options.

That they didn't get their man was embarrassing, and certainly not what they wanted. But they're better off in the long run.

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