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The 'if' in McGriff is a wrong answer


Good thing Fred McGriff didn't make the All-Star team. He probably would have hit the warehouse in his first swing at Camden Yards, knocking on Roland Hemond's window, if not quite his door.

Hemond would have jumped for the phone. The radio talk shows would have gone into a frenzy. And a trade that should never happen would have become that much closer to reality.

It's easy to get excited about McGriff, especially now that Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz says he has broken off talks with San Diego.

But so much has changed since assistant GM Frank Robinson visited San Diego a month ago. The Padres want left-hander Arthur Rhodes and a prospect, believed to be shortstop Manny Alexander.

That's too much.

The Orioles' biggest hole is now at third base, not first. And, with three suspect veterans in the starting rotation, their biggest need might be a pitcher, not a hitter.

"It keeps fluctuating one day to the next," Robinson said yesterday. "I think we need both, to tell you the truth. But we can't do that."

"Either could help us," assistant GM Doug Melvin said. "You ask, 'Which one could help you the most, giving up the least?' They're both so close."

A month ago, McGriff looked like an obvious answer for a team desperate to score runs. But that was before David Segui hit .403 in June, and before Jeffrey Hammonds arrived as Kirby Puckett.

The Orioles still could use another hitter, but with Rick Sutcliffe reeling, who's to say a pitcher wouldn't be more useful, and who's to say that pitcher isn't Rhodes?

Here's a guy the Orioles couldn't stop gushing about in spring training -- so mature, so talented, so close to stardom. Now, after six poor starts and knee surgery, he stinks?

Of course not. Ben McDonald was even more of an enigma than Rhodes two months ago, but suddenly he's a dependable No. 2 starter. Rhodes is 23 and left-handed. You can't give up on him.

Besides, we all know what happened the last time the Orioles traded young pitching for a slugging first baseman. Better deals are made on the Home Shopping Network every two minutes.

McGriff isn't another Glenn Davis -- he has played in 152 or more games and hit 31 or more homers each of the past five seasons. Still, his impact might not be as great as it would appear.

Just as Davis spelled doom for Randy Milligan, McGriff would diminish the roles of Segui and Harold Baines, two of the Orioles' most productive players. Worse, the club would be left with the same problem at third base.

A month ago, Leo Gomez led the Orioles with nine homers, but now he's on the disabled list with a .201 average, and Gary Sheffield looks like he would have been a better fit than McGriff.

The Padres apparently demanded the same Rhodes-Alexander package for Sheffield. When they couldn't get it, they took pitcher Trevor Hoffman and two minor-leaguers from Florida instead.

All right, maybe Rhodes won't turn out like Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling. But at least when the Orioles made the Davis trade, they were relatively deep in pitching. Now, they're not.

The only prospects close to the majors are John O'Donoghue and Kevin McGeehee. The first was never drafted, not out of high school, not out of college, not by an expansion club. The second is such a hot commodity, the Orioles got him for Luis Mercedes.

Meanwhile, the current starting rotation includes three pitchers over 30 -- Sutcliffe, Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela. Does anyone seriously believe more than one of them will be back?

The loss of Rhodes would force the Orioles to sign one or two free agents this winter, and everyone knows pitchers are the biggest gamble on the market. For a team built on young pitching, it would be a major step backward.

"These deals can be difficult," Melvin said. "You've got to say, 'If we give up pitching, where will we be next year? You can always find a pitcher -- [Todd] Frohwirth two years ago, [Alan] Mills last year, Valenzuela and Moyer this year. But you can't find them in bunches."

To think, that would be only half the risk. Alexander, 22, is the Orioles' only middle-infield prospect close to the majors. Trading him would mean committing to Cal Ripken at shortstop for the duration of his five-year contract.

Pause button, please.

Put it all together, and the trade just doesn't work. It would be different if the Padres lowered their asking price. If the Orioles had some unknown master plan. If Fred McGriff could play third base.

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