The Baltimore Orioles came back down to earth last year, but they have remained there only long enough to retool their offensive machine and partially rethink a youth-oriented organizational philosophy.
Now, as the club prepares to fly south for the spring, expectations are again on the rise. And, to quote a familiar phrase from a happier time, "Why not?"
The arrival of proven run-producers Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans gives the Orioles offensive potential not seen in these parts since Eddie Murray stalked out of town. The presence of eight viable candidates for the starting rotation leaves the pitching staff functional despite the departure of Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling. If all goes well in Sarasota -- and the 13 other cities the club will visit on the grueling,month-long exhibition trip that begins in early March -- the Orioles will come back to Baltimore a legitimate contender in the American League East.
"We feel we definitely have improved the ballclub," general manager Roland Hemond said, "and we're certainly looking forward to a full spring training."
Last year's preparation time was cut short by baseball's labor impasse, which hurt the Orioles more than some teams because of the number of Baltimore players who were coming back from injuries. This year, the players who are in camp for Friday's opening pitchers/catchers workout at Twin Lakes Park will have 46 days to get ready for Opening Day.
It might seem even longer than that when the club gets into its all-road Grapefruit League schedule, but manager Frank Robinson will need all the time he can get to consider the possibilities presented by his revamped roster.
"I'm excited about it," Robinson said. "This is the best I've felt about a ballclub since I've managed here. Sure, there will be more decisions to make, but not more pressure."
The blockbuster trade for Davis left the Orioles with a roster surplus at first base and Robinson with a variety of possible lineup configurations -- some of them rather unconventional. Will Randy Milligan, who recently established himself as the everyday first baseman, be forced to adapt to the outfield to keep a regular spot in the lineup? Will Davis split time between first base and designated hitter (or perhaps even left field)? Will Evans have to play regularly in the outfield to play regularly at all? Will 46 days be enough time to decide?
Robinson isn't complaining. When he asked for run-production help a year ago, he got Randy Bass and Sam Horn. This year, he got Evans and Davis. Putting together a starting lineup might be more complicated, but it definitely will be more fun.
"There's no doubt about it, we're a much better ballclub than we were at this time last year," Robinson said. "We're much better offensively, which is going to take a lot of pressure off the pitching staff. We're going to score some runs."
Though club officials originally left open the possibility that Davis might spend some time in the outfield, it now seems obvious that it will be Milligan who will have to adapt to a new environment to keep his place in the starting lineup. The Orioles aren't going to pay Davis $3.275 million a year to be a glorified utility man. Milligan probably will work out in left field, though club officials are guessing that he'll end up getting 300-400 at-bats as a designated hitter and giving Davis an occasional day off at first base.
"Overall, we're going to have more competition this year, which leads to the necessity of more spring training," Hemond said. "We're deeper at more positions. It should be interesting, with our infield deeper and Dwight Evans trying to get ready to play the outfield."
Much depends on Evans, who is intent on proving that he can play regularly in right field. He has not made an appearance there since August 1989, thanks to a painful back injury that also has cut deeply into his offensive capability. But his 1990 run-production numbers -- however diminished -- still would have been welcome on the Orioles stat sheet.
If Evans can defy his 39 years and again display his solid defensive skills on a regular basis, Robinson will be in a position ,, to assemble an imposing (albeit predominantly right-handed) batting order. The heart of the lineup likely would feature Cal Ripken batting third, Davis in the cleanup spot, Milligan DHing and hitting fifth, and Evans batting behind him. The presence of left-handed hitters Joe Orsulak, Sam Horn and Brady Anderson figures to give Robinson some flexibility against right-handed pitchers, but not much.
Better left-right balance might be nice, but there were more pressing concerns when the Orioles embarked on their off-season reconstruction project.
"It's no secret that we have not been one of the better run-producing clubs," assistant GM Doug Melvin said. "We were last in the American League against left-handed starting pitchers. Our DH production was the worst in the league last year. We look at that and say, 'We'll worry about the other things later.' Just the idea of having Milligan, Ripken, Davis and Evans in the same lineup is very positive.
"We had some off-season goals. We wanted to acquire a couple of professional hitters. With Evans and Davis, we exceeded our expectations."
The offensive lineup isn't all that hard to figure, though auditions for the leadoff spot will be wide open. The starting rotation and the defensive alignment will be more challenging, since Robinson will have several difficult decisions to make before the club breaks camp.
The pitching staff took a beating in the Davis trade, but the Orioles appear to have sufficient depth to replace Harnisch and Schilling. There are eight legitimate candidates for the rotation, including newcomers Jeff Robinson and Roy Smith, but only two Ben McDonald and Dave Johnson) who can say with any real certainty that they will be in the starting five.
"I keep an open mind," Robinson said, "Naturally, some guys are longer shots than others, but this is a situation where a guy can come in and win a job."
The Orioles were very high on right-hander Jose Mesa last September, so he'll get a long look. Jeff Ballard floundered in his first season after elbow surgery and Bob Milacki pitched with a sore shoulder for much of the 1990 season, but both will get every opportunity to return to the rotation this year. No one has forgotten that they combined to win 32 games in 1989.
"I think both of them can come back," Robinson said. "Jeff really didn't give himself a 100 percent chance to get healthy last year, and Milacki's arm wasn't right. Jeff probably pitched too soon. I appreciated the effort, but he shouldn't have come back so soon."
In the bullpen, nobody will challenge stopper Gregg Olson or set-up man Mark Williamson, but the other three spots are wide open. Left-hander Kevin Hickey will be trying to prove that he still belongs in the major leagues, but Ballard could end up in the left-handed set-up role. The other jobs probably will be filled by surplus starters.
Behind the plate, promising Chris Hoiles finally will get a real opportunity to play now that Mickey Tettleton has moved on to Detroit, but the Orioles have made it clear that veteran Bob Melvin is no longer just a back-up. The club recently rewarded Melvin for last year's solid defensive performance with a two-year contract.
Infield depth will not be a problem, except where it ignites competition for playing time. Davis and Milligan both are capable of starting at first base; Cal and Bill Ripken will be unchallenged up the middle, but have Juan Bell and Tim Hulett in competition to back them up; and Leo Gomez and Craig Worthington will be fighting for the starting job at third.
Gomez took that competition public a few weeks early when he told USA Today that there wasn't room on the club for two everyday third basemen. He suggested the team trade one of them, but Hemond says the competition will be healthy for both players.
No doubt, Robinson is hoping that the presence of Gomez gives Worthington a nudge in the right direction. It was apparent to the Orioles that Worthington did not respond well when the job was conceded to him after his strong rookie year in 1989.
"I think Worthy will push himself this year, whether there is competition or not," Robinson said. "I think he understands that he was laid-back and relaxed last year and the season got away from him. But yes, I think the competition is a healthy thing."
The Orioles are not particularly deep in the outfield, but the only soft spot is in left field. The readiness of Evans in right could determine who plays regularly in left. If Evans has to DH, Milligan becomes an outfield candidate and Orsulak becomes the everyday right fielder. If Evans is in right, Orsulak would likely back him up and also share time with Anderson in left. If it sounds confusing, it probably will be. Center fielder Mike Devereaux is the only Orioles outfielder who is expected to play 140 games.
1991 Orioles spring schedule
Date .. .. .. ..Opponent . Site. Time .. Radio/TV
Thu., Mar. 7 White Sox Sarasota 1:35 p.m. WBAL
Fri., Mar. 8 Rangers Port Charlotte 1:30 p.m. WBAL
Sat., Mar. 9 Yankees Fort Lauderdale 1:05 p.m. WBAL
Sun., Mar. 10 Yankees Fort Lauderdale 1:05 p.m. WBAL
Mon., Mar. 11 Red Sox Bradenton 1:05 p.m. HTS
Tue., Mar. 12 Rangers Sarasota 7:05 p.m.
Wed., Mar. 13 Red Sox Winter Haven 1:05 p.m.
Thu., Mar. 14 White Sox Sarasota 7:05 p.m.
Fri., Mar. 15 Twins Fort Myers 1:05 p.m. WBAL
Sat., Mar. 16 Rangers Port Charlotte 1:30 p.m. WBAL/Ch.2, Ch. 20
Sun., Mar. 17 Blue Jays Dunedin 1:35 p.m. WBAL
Tue., Mar. 19 Tigers Sarasota 1:35 p.m.
Tue., Mar. 19 Yankees (SS) Fort Lauderdale 1:05 p.m.
Wed., Mar. 20 Mets Port St. Lucie 1:05 p.m. HTS
Thu., Mar. 21 Blue Jays Dunedin 1:35 p.m. HTS
Fri., Mar. 22 Twins Sarasota 1:35 p.m. WBAL
Sat., Mar. 23 Royals Haines City 1:05 p.m. WBAL/Ch. 2, Ch. 20
Sun., Mar. 24 White Sox Sarasota 1:35 p.m. WBAL
Mon., Mar. 25 Pirates Bradenton 1:05 p.m. HTS
Tue., Mar. 26 Phillies Clearwater 1:05 p.m.
Wed., Mar. 27 Dodgers Vero Beach 1:35 p.m.
Thu., Mar. 28 Expos W. Palm Beach 1:05 p.m.
Fri., Mar. 29 Yankees Fort Lauderdale 1:05 p.m. WBAL
Sat., Mar. 30 Yankees Miami 7:35 p.m. Ch. 2, Ch. 20
Sun., Mar. 31 Yankees Miami 1:35 p.m. WBAL
Mon., Apr. 1 Expos W. Palm Beach 1:05 p.m. HTS
Tue., Apr. 2 Braves W. Palm Beach 1:05 p.m.
Wed., Apr. 3 Expos W. Palm Beach 7:05 p.m.
Thu., Apr. 4 Yankees Fort Lauderdale 1:05 p.m. WBAL/ESPN
Sat., Apr. 6 Red Sox RFK Stadium 1:35 p.m. WBAL
Sun., Apr. 7 Red Sox RFK Stadium 1:35 p.m. WBAL