These days, same old Orioles offer nothing new under sun

Spring Training 2000

February 16, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Once upon a time, the Orioles actually had drama in spring training.

In 1988, Roland Hemond assembled the final pieces of the Titanic by acquiring Jeff Stone, Keith Hughes and Rick Schu from the Philadelphia Phillies.

In '89, Steve Finley signaled the "Why Not?" season with a diving catch on a line drive by Brady Anderson in the first at-bat of the first intrasquad game.

In '94, former manager Johnny Oates paced back and forth in his office, trying to decide whether Anderson or Mike Devereaux should play center field.

And, as recently as '96, manager Davey Johnson kicked off his tumultuous two-year tenure by announcing that Bobby Bonilla would be his designated hitter.

Ah, the good old days.

For the Orioles, spring training 2000 will be the baseball version of an old-age home, and about as exciting.

You might think that a team coming off back-to-back sub-.500 seasons would stage open competitions for jobs. But once again, the biggest competition in Fort Lauderdale will be for first dibs on the whirlpool.

Frankly, the Orioles' biggest priority is off the field, where the outcome of the Mike Mussina negotiations could determine the future direction of the franchise.

Ideally, Mussina will sign a contract extension by Opening Day. Realistically, the talks figure to drag into the season, serving as a haunting backdrop to the theme-park atmosphere at Camden Yards.

For now, the major stories will be the injury rehabilitations of Cal Ripken, Will Clark and Delino DeShields. The 25-man roster is mostly set, but for all the wrong reasons -- unwieldy long-term contracts, not All-Star players at every position.

The manager is new, but the manager was also new in '95, '96 and '98. The general manager well, there is no general manager, unless you count vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift Angelos, who might as well just join the family already.

The big question with the rotation is whether Jason Johnson can emerge as a quality fourth starter. The bullpen has been almost completely overhauled -- Mike Timlin, of all people, is the only reliever back from last spring -- but no one will know whether it is improved until the season begins.

For a team looking at a maximum of 82 to 85 victories -- and that's if everything breaks right with this aging group -- there's precious little intrigue.

The signing of veteran Tim Worrell ended any realistic possibility of organizational competition for the final bullpen job. Even the Orioles' one positional battle -- DeShields vs. Jerry Hairston at second base -- appears scripted by the WWF's Vince McMahon.

The Orioles need DeShields to boost his trade value by opening the season as an everyday player. DeShields can't play if he is beaten out by Hairston. All spring, you'll hear how DeShields is the second coming of Bill Mazeroski.

Don't buy it?

At least there's Ripken.

As always, there's Ripken.

Nine hits short of 3,000, the future Hall of Famer is coming off major back surgery as he approaches his 40th birthday. Ripken batted a career-high .340 and slugged a career-high .584 last season despite appearing in only 86 games. Is it possible he will be even better now that his back is repaired?

That seems difficult to imagine, but Ripken's recovery is progressing smoothly, and he has spent his entire career doing the unexpected. And if the Orioles are to be competitive, they will need him to return to a productive full-time role.

Jeff Conine can replace Clark at first, just as he did last season. But it's doubtful that the Orioles can plug both infield corners, and Ryan Minor no longer appears a legitimate alternative at third. It's Ripken or bust -- and even with Ripken, there is much that can go wrong with this team.

Let's assume the rotation will be presentable. Let's assume the bullpen can't get any worse. The question then might become whether the Orioles can score enough runs.

They ranked eighth in the league in that department last season despite big years from B. J. Surhoff, Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick. And because seven of their projected nine starters in the lineup will be 34 by the end of the season, an offensive crash is certainly possible.

Still, spring training is a time for hope, a time for the wounded to get healthy, for prospects to show progress, for new managers to become acquainted with their teams.

If all else is equal, the change from Ray Miller to Mike Hargrove alone could account for five more wins. Then again, no one should underestimate the challenge awaiting the former Cleveland manager.

The Orioles were in a deep hole after 50 games in each of the past two seasons, going 22-28 in '98, 19-31 in '99. They've overhauled the bullpen, but they're returning with essentially the same lineup and rotation.

Jobs are set; tension is minimal.

Any drama -- and trauma -- will come later.

Pub Date: 2/16/00

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