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SI FOR KIDS
As the payroll swells and the roster ages, the O's can only hope it all adds up
By Michael Bamberger
Let's say you're Peter Angelos. You're a successful lawyer. Your ego is, let's just say, healthy. You own a baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. You despise the division-rival New York Yankees, winners of last year's World Series, winners in the AL East by 22 games. Your own club finished fourth, 35 games behind the Yankees, four games under .500, despite a $74 million payroll. You're selling out every home game because you have a great ballpark and because Baltimoreans love baseball. But you know that a lot of baseball people are laughing at you for spending all that money on a 79-83 team. You have a choice. You could go back to the old, core Orioles values: farm system and fundamentals. Or you could import some high-priced talent.
Welcome, Will Clark! How're you doing, Delino DeShields! Glad to know you, Charles Johnson! A merry good morning to you, Albert Belle! If spending $74 million last year wasn't enough to get the Orioles in the chase, Angelos is guessing that $82 million, this year's expected tab, will be.
The second-year manager, Ray Miller, will have his hands full. Any manager would, trying to keep a grip on so much expensive, veteran talent. Miller used 132 different lineups last year, but he'll take a different tack this season. He hopes to figure out, early, a batting order that works, and stick with it.
The every-day guys are a formidable lot, with known strengths and known weaknesses. For good or for bad, there's not a kid among them. The catcher is Johnson, 28, a defensive master (four consecutive Gold Gloves) who hit a meager .218 for the Dodgers last year. Clark, the first baseman, most recently with the Rangers, is 35 and still a sweet swinger. Defense is another matter. The throw to second, let alone third, is a battle for him now. The speedy DeShields, 30, who came on board after a two-year stint with the Cardinals, will be the second baseman -- when he returns to the lineup in mid-April from a fractured left hand suffered during spring training. The shortstop, Mike Bordick, 33, is a solid fielder who fares poorly against hard-throwing righties. Third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., at 38, is an icon. Even though the Streak is over, his fan base remains huge, and because of it he is the most powerful personality in the organization, a fact that has caused clubhouse tensions in the past.
In rightfield, Belle, 32, who had a monster year with the White Sox, will require his new team to adjust to him, and not vice versa. (He wants to bat cleanup, and he will bat cleanup.) Centerfielder Brady Anderson, the 35-year-old leadoff hitter, is coming off a poor season in which he batted .236 and hit only 18 home runs. (He had smacked 50 in 1996.) Leftfielder B.J. Surhoff, 34, was probably the most dependable Oriole last year, considering defense and offense together, but does he have the arm to play right if Belle struggles there?
Last year the Baltimore defense, which featured second baseman Roberto Alomar and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (both departed), was spectacular. The Orioles committed only 81 errors, a major league record, and still could not win half their games. This year their defense is suspect. But if all the skillful bats on the team -- especially those of Belle, Clark, DeShields, Anderson and Surhoff -- can produce numbers in the vicinity of their career averages, the team's offensive production could be massive enough to overwhelm an irksome problem like shoddy defense. At least that's what Baltimore is counting on.
The starting pitching should keep the Orioles in games, although starting five righties makes them susceptible to certain teams, the Yankees among them. Mike Mussina, the staff ace, is due to have his first 20-win season. Scott Erickson provides innings -- he led the league with 251 last year -- which the Orioles will need, since their bullpen is not exactly bulletproof. It's no secret that the Orioles wish Erickson was their third, and not their second, starter. General manager Frank Wren is looking for someone to follow Mussina in the rotation, but so far nothing has come together. For now, Juan Guzman is the No. 3 starter. He's a strikeout pitcher on a club where any out by strikes will be particularly welcome. Following Guzman will be Scott Kamieniecki, who had two disks in his neck fused in September but by spring training was pitching well. The fifth starter is Sidney Ponson, a kid full of promise. If that quintet pitches to its ability, Baltimore will be in the wild-card race.
The Orioles could have tried something radical, such as slashing the budget and making a commitment to fledgling players like first baseman Calvin Pickering, second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr., third baseman Ryan Minor and third baseman-outfielder Willis Otanez. But Angelos believes that the local citizenry won't come to watch those guys play .500 ball this year with the hope that they might play .600 ball next year. He knows people will pay to watch Belle and Clark and Ripken whether they're playing .500 ball or .600 ball. The Orioles' owner is playing for now. If this season is another expensive mistake, he'll just go back to the drawing board again.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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