For starters, Orioles need big free-agent pitch


John Oates said the other day that the Orioles' first off-season priority should be improving their pitching, and if you have an ounce of Bird in your blood, you can only hope the people who sign his paychecks were paying attention.

Oates was only a .250 hitter in the majors, but he hit a home run this time. Pitching, starting pitching, is where his club most needs help. And there is help to be found. Imagine Tom Candiotti in the rotation. Or Mike Moore. Or Ron Darling. Or Kirk McCaskill. They'll all be free agents after this season.

The good news, of course, is they'll be available, so they become options. The bad news is that, considering it will take winning a bidding war to get them, the Orioles' chances fall somewhere among fractional, infinitesimal and maybe-it-will-snow-in-the-desert.

Call me a cynic. I'll call Mickey Tettleton in Detroit. We're probably just pipe-dreaming about these pitchers. But let's talk about what should happen. We're in agreement, right? The Orioles should gather a bucket of bucks and invest in a boost for their starting pitching. Do I hear a single "nay"?

Trace the failure of 1991 and at the roots you'll find the Orioles overrating their starters. Only Roy Smith has performed better than expected, and he has won five games. That tells you they can't begin 1992 with the same group. That tells you there must be changes.

Mike Mussina will get his shot, but is that enough? No. And is there another prospect ready to help next year? No. Arthur Rhodes is at least a year away. Most of the other top arms in the minors -- there are a half-dozen of promise, from Stacy Jones to Todd Stephan -- are relievers.

So the Orioles have this dilemma: Either they sign a free agent to provide some ballast for their rotation, or they go through another season hoping their mostly mediocre starters pitch over their heads.

To foist the latter on the fans would be cynical. The club may set an attendance record in this lost season, and is assured of big crowds next year in the new stadium. A 120-loss team could still draw 3 million fans. They deserve better than baseball's second-lowest payroll.

The McDonald-Mussina-Rhodes axis could be formidable in a few years, but we're talking about next year and the year after, while these young arms mature. We're talking about paying back fans, or at least making an attempt to, for supporting all this bad baseball.

Of course, it is true there is no guaranteeing a free agent will make a difference. Just look at the Red Sox, for whom Danny Darwin and Matt Young are a combined 6-9 in 22 starts. They're no better than what the Orioles have trotted out this season.

But the only course worse than taking the risk and failing would be not taking the risk at all. There is a every reason to think a Candiotti or Moore could come in, pitch 200 innings and win 15 games. You have to take the risk coming off this season. You simply must.

There is just no reason for the Orioles, at this time, not to gamble on a free-agent starter. Things can't get worse. They don't lose their first-round draft choice, which is significant considering they stand to pick fourth, the same spot from which they chose Gregg Olson. There is just no downside.

Of course, the question then becomes: Which free agent do you want? Candiotti would be terrific. He throws a lot of innings, keeps you in the game and, as a knuckleballer, could be pitching for years. Moore is big and strong and, though injured now, has been a big help in Oakland. Darling hasn't been a stalwart since 1988, but he's only 30 and still throws hard. (Some other available-to-be names: Oil Can Boyd, Jim Deshaies, Jim Clancy, Mike Morgan. Frank Viola will be the big catch of the class, but the Mets probably will re-sign him.)

I have an easier time envisioning the Orioles chasing a bargain. McCaskill is having a down year, but he's only 30 and won a total of 27 games for the Angels in 1989 and 1990. Bob Walk has allowed 65 hits in 80 innings for the Pirates. He is 34, but the Yankees aren't sorry they signed Scott (35, 10-6) Sanderson. The Tigers aren't sorry they signed Bill (32, 13-5) Gullickson. Think the Orioles wish they still had Mike (33) Boddicker?

Whether Eli Jacobs sells the team could, of course, have an enormous impact on all this. Jacobs' Orioles have shown a great reluctance to chase free agents. He says he is thinking about selling, and if it happened in time, maybe the new owner would be a bigger spender. If Jacobs doesn't sell in time, don't expect much.

Anyway, the point is the Orioles should do something. Bob Milacki may be coming around, and Ben McDonald will, but the club still needs someone else to go out every five days and pitch six or seven innings. The game is just too difficult otherwise.

The Tigers have passed the Orioles by taking chances in the off-season. The Yankees have passed the Orioles by, in part, taking chances in the off-season. Unless the Orioles start taking their own chances, particularly with their pitching, they'll wind up right back where they are this year -- almost 20 games out of first place.

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