Trailing Toronto by two games, the Orioles are now prepare to make a trade that could decide the AL East. Ideally, they want to acquire a veteran starting pitcher, but they also are trying to add a proven run producer.
Nothing is imminent, but with the right move, general manager Roland Hemond can deliver a knockout blow to the reeling Blue Jays. Postseason rosters freeze at midnight Monday, so it's essential Hemond acts swiftly.
The Orioles could use another hitter (Andre Dawson? Tom Brunansky?) but last night's 9-1 rout of California was a reminder of the potency of their offense. The need for a starting pitcher is clearly more urgent, now that the luster has worn off Arthur Rhodes.
Manager Johnny Oates wants to keep Alan Mills in the bullpen, and avoid working his top three starters -- Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald -- on three days' rest. Rhodes, however, is 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in his last four starts.
The solution is to add a veteran to the rotation and pitch Rhodes in the fifth spot. If the rookie left-hander continued to slump, Oates would be forced to reconsider Mills, or use Sutcliffe -- if no one else -- on three days' rest.
The Orioles don't want to part with top prospects, so their best shot is an aging veteran who would come cheap -- someone like San Diego's Craig Lefferts, Detroit's Frank Tanana or, most intriguing of all, Kansas City's Mike Boddicker.
Lefferts and Tanana are left-handers, but Boddicker probably could be acquired for the lowest price if he cleared waivers, the potential stumbling block for any trade. The former Oriole just turned 35, and the Royals are using him in relief while paying him $3 million per year.
Boddicker also is guaranteed $3 million next season, but the Royals assumed $400,000 of Storm Davis' $2.3 million salary upon trading him to the Orioles last winter, and almost certainly would make the same type of deal again.
For all Boddicker's problems this season -- he's 0-4 with a 4.61 ERA -- you'd rather have him pitching in a pennant race than Rhodes. Considering the way the Orioles love dipping into their nostalgic past, the scenario is almost too obvious.
So, for that matter, is the club's pursuit of Dawson, the No. 1 hitter on its wish list. Oates was a coach with the Chicago Cubs when Dawson hit 49 homers and was named NL MVP in 1987. Sutcliffe, of course, also was a member of that team.
Dawson, 38, would offer Orioles hitters the same type of leadership Sutcliffe gives the pitchers. The Cubs don't plan to protect him in the expansion draft, but they're not likely to trade him either. They're still trying to win the NL East.
"I'm 6 1/2 games back. I don't feel we're any different than Baltimore. I feel we've got a good chance to win," Cubs general manager Larry Himes said yesterday -- before last night's action put his club 7 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh.
Himes surely will adopt a different stance in the coming days if the Cubs drop farther back. Dawson is batting .258 with 17 homers and 65 RBI, but has enough major-league service to reject a trade. He probably wouldn't agree to join the Orioles unless the club added another year to his contract.
Brunansky, 32, might be easier to acquire, for he's likely to leave Boston as a free agent after this season. The Orioles wouldn't need to re-sign him, but for one month they could use a right fielder batting .281 with 13 homers and 61 RBI.
The question is, at what cost?
The Orioles no doubt would trade Rochester outfielder Luis Mercedes, but other teams are wary of his temper. Rochester shortstop Ricky Gutierrez might be expendable with Cal Ripken signed and Manny Alexander behind him, but he also could move to second base.
The question is, at what cost? The Orioles probably could put together one package, but not two. Thus, the pitching need must take precedence. The team batting average the past three weeks has been .233, but the offense can't get any worse. In fact, it almost certainly will get better.
Randy Milligan is again scalding the ball, and Oates said, "Moose is going to kill somebody if he doesn't watch out." Glenn Davis went two weeks without an RBI, but last night hit a two-out RBI single to make it 3-0 and later added a sacrifice fly.
What if Cal Ripken gets hot? He came within inches of ending his 57-game home run drought. What if Chito Martinez or Chris Hoiles get hot? Martinez produced his first three-hit game of the season and first homer since July 9, Hoiles his first RBI since coming off the disabled list Aug. 18.
The offense isn't the problem -- it will get another boost if Joe Orsulak comes off the DL as expected next week. The Orioles need starting pitching, and they need it fast. For all their promise, it might be years before they get this close again.