CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND -- The 1992 season went much better than expected for the Orioles, but their third-place finish does not leave them much room to sit back and revel in past glory.
Third place does not provide enough laurels for even a day's rest, so club officials will be back at work today formulating their plans for the winter and beyond.
"The off-season is going to be about 12 hours long," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said recently, and he apparently meant every word of it.
He has scheduled extensive organizational meetings for today and tomorrow, no doubt hoping to get an early jump on the club's off-season improvement program. No one wants this to be a temporary turnaround like the "Why Not?" season of 1989.
Manager Johnny Oates spent part of the weekend putting together a presentation for Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond, but Oates has declined to reveal his wish list until after the two days of meetings.
"We want to get together while the season is still fresh in everyone's minds," Lucchino said. "We're going to sit down and discuss everything -- what we did right and what we did wrong."
Then they will have to discuss what to do next. The Orioles opened their new stadium in style, winning 10 of their first 11 home games to jump into the thick of the American League East race. No one could have expected that they would still be in contention in mid-September, but the final weeks of the season exposed them as something less than a championship team.
When their title hopes were on the line, the offense was on the fritz. The Orioles went 21 consecutive games without scoring more than four runs. The heart of the lineup -- Cal Ripken, Glenn Davis and Randy Milligan -- never really was assertive enough for the club to take down a team the caliber of the Toronto Blue Jays.
There were a handful of pleasant developments. Brady Anderson turned in an all-around offensive performance out of the leadoff spot that is unmatched in American League history. No AL leadoff hitter had hit more than 20 homers, stolen more than 50 bases and driven in
more than 75 runs in a single season. Mike Devereaux had an MVP-caliber season, with 24 home runs and 107 RBI. Chris Hoiles hit 20 home runs despite a wrist fracture that cost him more than two months of the season.
The trouble is, as much as the Orioles would like to take those numbers for granted next season, they cannot assume that the offensive lineup will improve enough to take another step in the right direction.
The potential certainly is there. If Ripken and Davis had turned in even average performances this year, the Orioles might not be going home empty-handed today. If Leo Gomez and Milligan had continued to develop, the offensive lineup would have been far more formidable than the one that slipped into such a slumber in September.
There are no easy answers, especially in the uncertain environment created by the Nov. 17 expansion draft, which will stock the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. The
Orioles need to solidify their offensive lineup. That much is obvious. But the simplest way to do so is also the least likely.
Lucchino said last week that the club would not "radically change our approach to free agency," which means that Barry Bonds and Kirby Puckett need not apply. The club has been known to make modest forays into the free-agent arena -- as evidenced by last year's acquisition of Rick Sutcliffe -- but there do not figure to be many 90-RBI threats willing to sign for one year at $1.2 million.
The Orioles reportedly made a couple of bids to acquire outfielder Andre Dawson from the Chicago Cubs this year. He'll be available as a free agent, but he won't come that cheap. Ruben Sierra would be the perfect acquisition, but he will fall in the same price range as Bonds and Puckett.
The front office will have enough trouble deciding whether to re-sign outfielder Joe Orsulak, the only Orioles position player who is eligible to file for free agency at the end of the year. Orsulak made $1.3 million to play a part-time outfield role, so it is conceivable that the club will look for some other way to spend that money, but that would not make sense if there are no solid plans to find another run-producing outfielder.
This wouldn't be a problem if the club could be certain that Davis will be healthy and productive next year, but his track record over the past two seasons makes that a poor gamble. He once was considered a franchise player who could carry a team all by himself, but the Orioles would be satisfied with a workmanlike performance that fills one of the holes in the middle of the lineup.
"That's what really hurts," said a major-league advance scout, who did not want to be identified. "If you don't have a good cleanup guy, it takes away from your whole attack. The two guys at the top of the order -- Anderson and Devereaux -- are as good as anybody, but if you don't have a No. 4 guy that can get a two-out hit once in awhile, you can't steal that run in the first inning when your No. 1 or 2 guy gets on and steals a base.
"When your fourth and fifth guys are good, they make everyone ahead of them better."
There are more pressing considerations at the moment. The club has to finalize its 15-man protected list for the expansion draft and make contract decisions concerning Sut
cliffe and left-hander Craig Lefferts.
The Orioles have expressed their desire to bring back Sutcliffe for 1993, but they figure to wait until after the expansion draft to offer him a contract. By doing so, they run the risk that some other team will recognize his value and make a play for him, but every team is constrained by its protected list, so he probably will still be available on Nov. 18.
The club can have Lefferts simply by offering him salary arbitration within five days after the World Series, but he'll command a salary of about $2.5 million for next year.
The youthful nucleus of the rotation is set. Mike Mussina had a Cy Young-caliber season in his first full year at the major-league level. Arthur Rhodes came up at the midpoint and showed great improvement over 1991. Ben McDonald was inconsistent, but he proved he could remain healthy all year and pitch 200 innings.
Oates also can look at reliever/spot starter Alan Mills as a possible candidate for the rotation, so retaining both Sutcliffe and Lefferts may not be critical.
What should they do?
"If you have the luxury of being able to afford both, you bring back both," one scout said. "How many teams go to spring training with five solid starters in place. Not very many. If you have to choose between them, you've got to take Sutcliffe, because of all the things he does for
Pitching does not appear to be an off-season priority, except as it relates to Sutcliffe and Lefferts. Depending on the outcome of the expansion draft, the Orioles appear to have plenty of candidates for the bullpen. Left-hander Jim Poole and right-hander Mark Williamson have come back from injuries to prove they are healthy. Todd Frohwirth and Mills have been outstanding. Gregg Olson's contract is guaranteed through the 1993 season.
There are other pitching decisions to make, but they are not crucial. The club has to decide whether it wants to re-sign left-handers Mike Flanagan and Pat Clements and whether to tender a contract to right-hander Bob Milacki.
The draft will determine what other areas the club must address. The Orioles are going to lose at least two players and maybe three, depending on the needs of the two expansion teams. Backup first baseman David Segui appears to be very vulnerable, but there are any number of possibilities.
It is unlikely that the expansion draft will have a substantial effect on the makeup of the 1993 club, but it will have a definite impact on the way the Orioles front office does business over the next six weeks. The off-season may begin tomorrow, but it may take until Nov. 18 to figure out which direction the team is headed.
Projected 15-man protected list
Whom Orioles beat writer Peter Schmuck thinks the Orioles will protect in the Nov. 17 expansion draft:
Manny Alexander ... SS
Brady Anderson ... OF
Glenn Davis ... 1B/DH
Mike Devereaux ... OF
Todd Frohwirth ... P
Leo Gomez ... 3B
Chris Hoiles ... C
Ben McDonald ... P
Luis Mercedes ... OF
Alan Mills ... P
Mike Mussina ... P
Arthur Rhodes ... P
Gregg Olson ... P
Brad Pennington ... P
Cal Ripken ... SS
Note: P Rick Sutcliffe, OF Joe Orsulak and P Pat Clements are eligible for free agency. P Craig Lefferts and P Storm Davis can become free agents if the Orioles do not re-sign them or offer then arbitration within five days after the World Series.