With ailing youth, Orioles face future shock Olson, Hammonds status may alter moves for '94

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There was a time not so long ago that the Orioles organization seemed quite comfortable with -- and maybe even a little cocky about -- the youthful nucleus of the club. But as the 1993 season comes to a close, such hubris is in short supply.

The future that seemed so bright when the Orioles opened spring training seven months ago is clouded with uncertainty. Reliever Gregg Olson faces the possibility of career-threatening elbow surgery. Top outfield prospect Jeffrey Hammonds has a bulging disk in his neck that could force him into a similarly difficult medical decision. Pitching ace Mike Mussina will finish the season on the sidelines with a sore shoulder.

Not exactly a happy ending.

Those three players constitute the core of a youth movement that was supposed to turn the corner this year, but they have left the club in a quandary as the new ownership group prepares to take over the operation of the front office this week.

If all three were certain to be healthy for the 1994 season, it would be relatively simple to chart the direction the club might take in its off-season maneuverings. But their guarded status -- particularly in the cases of Olson and Hammonds -- has created too many variables to make an accurate prediction of what might happen during the next few months.

Should the Orioles play it safe and sign a new closer? That might be prudent, but it would suck up money the team might be able to spend on a front-line run-producer. Can the front office afford to gamble on Hammonds and stick with the outfielders on the roster? That approach might work, but it also could leave the Orioles no better off after another season in which the divisional talent gap was too wide to bridge.

It's no longer a simple matter of adding a 100-RBI player and a quality starting pitcher as it might have been if everything else were in place.

"The number of decisions we're going to have to make has expanded," manager Johnny Oates said. "We can't go out and try to make a couple of moves without adding the possibility of not having Olson and Hammonds. That has to be part of the equation. You have to make plans as if they might not be here."

Of course, Oates and the rest of the front-office staff might not even be here. No one can say for certain what new majority owner Peter Angelos will do when he takes control of the club this week, but whoever makes the personnel decisions this winter will be faced with the same dilemma.

The assume-the-worst approach has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, who have made a habit of making improvements even when the club seemed good enough to win as constituted. The Orioles generally have taken the optimistic approach, basing their pennant hopes on a best-case scenario of top-level performance and swift player development. It looked as if that was going to work this year, until a string of injuries exposed a lack of depth.

"I think people took a lot for granted, and it just didn't happen this year," Mussina said. "A pleasant surprise is always nice once in a while. Look at Philadelphia."

The Philadelphia Phillies, of course, had everything go right this season and will open the National League Championship Series on Wednesday at Veterans Stadium. The last time they appeared in the playoffs (1983), they ended up in the World Series against Baltimore, but the opportunity for a 10-year reunion evaporated on the 3-6 September road trip that took the Orioles out of contention.

A lot of ifs

That might not be so frustrating if this club could look at 1993 as the next-to-last stop on the road back to the top of the standings, but there is no way to be sure of that. Even Mussina, who seems confident he will be able to put his physical problems behind him by Opening Day, knows there are no guarantees.

"People will be going into next year thinking, 'Is Mike going to be all right? Is Gregg going to be all right?' " he said. "There will be a lot of ifs -- a lot more than normal."

General manager Roland Hemond is a career optimist, so he continues to hold onto the hope that some uncertainty will be cleared up before the front office has to grapple with major personnel decisions.

"We may have some indication of their progress early enough in the off-season that we don't have to be looking for the worst," Hemond said. "You can't be sure about anything in life. There are players without problems now who may develop them in spring training. We'll wait. In the next couple of weeks, we may get some more information."

Mussina's situation is less troubling than the others. He was hampered this year by upper-back soreness and biceps tendinitis. The back pain is gone and the shoulder soreness is expected to respond to four months of rest and rehabilitation.

Of course, there was a time when the outlook for Olson and Hammonds seemed less troubling than it is today, but Mussina says he feels confident he won't be next in line.

"I've already asked that question of our people . . . if I should be concerned that it [the tendinitis] may be something else," he said. "The trainers don't think it is. Chick [Dr. Charles Silberstein] doesn't think so."

Olson's situation is more troubling. He faces the possibility of a "Tommy John" tendon transplant if the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow does not respond to rehab. That procedure probably would sideline him for the 1994 season and put his career in jeopardy.

Hammonds has been struggling with shoulder and back soreness throughout the season, the result of a herniated disk in his neck. He also faces the possibility that surgery might be the only avenue of relief. If that turns out to be the case, neither he nor the club will be in a position to take recovery for granted.

The Devereaux factor

That uncertainty may work to the advantage of center fielder Mike Devereaux, whose future in Baltimore appeared to be in question when Hammonds was flashing his talent earlier this season.

If Hammonds had remained healthy, the front office might have been able to rationalize a decision to trade Devereaux and cut more than $3 million off the payroll.

Now, that might not be so easy. Devereaux had a solid run-production year despite a shoulder injury that cost him several weeks of the season.

If the Orioles deal him for help in another area, they might be left with an outfield that depends too heavily on inexperienced players such as Damon Buford and Jack Voigt.

Voigt and Buford made contributions this year to a team that wasn't eliminated from the division race until the final week of play, but neither appear ready to replace Devereaux's numbers.

The club would be taking a step backward at a time when it needs to make strides to get to the top of the division ladder.

Devereaux has heard the talk. He knows his continued presence in Baltimore is not a given, but he will go home to Arizona this week under the assumption he'll be the Orioles' starting center fielder in 1994.

"It's something I can't control," he said. "If they feel they need to trade me to get what they need, they are going to do that. I can't worry about that. All I can do is work hard and be strong for next year so I can have a healthy season wherever I am."

Others on hold, too

There are at least three other 1993 regulars who cannot be sure how the winter will affect them.

First baseman David Segui will be waiting to see if the club acquires a power-hitting first baseman in the free-agent market. Second baseman Harold Reynolds will be waiting to see if he is invited back. And third baseman Leo Gomez will go to winter ball wondering if he'll be in an Orioles uniform next spring.

Segui had a solid season at first base, but could come up the loser if the new ownership is tempted by the availability of marquee first basemen Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro in the free-agent market.

Reynolds' future with the team may be tied to the Hammonds situation, because a healthy Hammonds might push converted right fielder Mark McLemore back into the infield. If Devereaux stays and Hammonds plays, McLemore figures to be the starting second baseman.

Gomez was the starting third baseman when the season began, but he struggled at the plate and eventually was sidelined by a wrist injury.

He returned to the active roster for the final month of play, but did not resurface as an everyday player. He hopes to be the starter next season, but the Orioles may decide to re-sign veteran Mike Pagliarulo and platoon him with Tim Hulett.

Bad stretch, insecure winter

No doubt, a lot of players would feel more secure this winter if the Orioles had been able to overtake the division-winning Toronto Blue Jays, but they got only a glimpse of first place

before fading down the stretch for the second straight year. It was a disappointing finish to a roller-coaster season.

"It all came down to the stretch," Hemond said.

"Two weeks ago, we were fine. We were still right there. The loss of Mussina and Olson hurt us down the stretch. It came to a point where we just couldn't overcome that anymore.

"It's to the club's credit that we stayed in the race without the two of them as long as we did, but it took its toll.

"That's the most disappointing part. It's just unfortunate that we didn't have them at a time when it was imperative for them to be there."

The question now is whether all the components will be in place next April.

ORIOLES TODAY

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 1:35 p.m.

Blue Jays starter: Danny Cox (7-6, 3.16)

Orioles starter: Ben McDonald (13-13, 3.09)

TV: HTS

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)

Tickets: Scattered singles remain, not including 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.

LOOKING AHEAD

There are too many variables to predict the makeup of the 1994 Orioles roster with any certainty, but here's a look at what the future might bring for each player who finished the season with the major-league club.

NAME ... ... ... ... ... ... OUTLOOK FOR 1994

Pitchers

Todd Frohwirth ... .. .. ... May not be tendered contract on Dec. 20, but should return.

Ben McDonald ... ... ... ... Only sure thing in the starting rotation.

Kevin McGehee .. ... ... ... Could compete for middle relief/spot starter role.

Alan Mills ... ... ... .. .. Could be next year's closer.

Jamie Moyer .. ... ... .. .. Will be asked back after outstanding season.

Mike Mussina ... ... ... ... Despite health questions, should be No. 1 starter.

John O'Donoghue ... ... ... Could compete for middle relief/spot starter role.

Gregg Olson ... ... ... ... Future clouded by torn elbow ligament.

Mike Oquist ... ... ... ... Could compete for middle relief/spot starter role.

Brad Pennington ... ... ... Should be in bullpen.

Jim Poole ... ... ... .. .. Should be back after solid season in set-up role.

Arthur Rhodes ... ... .. .. Will be in rotation, barring free-agent

acquisition.

Rick Sutcliffe .. ... .. .. May be invited to spring training, but no guarantees.

Mark Williamson ... ... ... Probably won't be re-signed.

F. Valenzuela .. .. ... ... Probably won't be re-signed.

Catchers

Chris Hoiles ... ... .. ... No doubt about status.

Mark Parent ... ... ... ... Better shot at backup role.

Jeff Tackett .. ... ... ... Will have to fight to stay.

Infielders

Manny Alexander ... ... ... Could be involved in winter dealings.

Leo Gomez ... ... .. .. ... Could be packaged in trade.

Tim Hulett .. ... .. .. ... Will be back in utility/reserve 3B role.

Mike Pagliarulo ... ... ... Should be re-signed.

Harold Reynolds ... ... ... Status depends on McLemore's projected role.

Cal Ripken ... ... .. .. .. No questions here.

David Segui .. ... .. .. .. Starting job depends on club's free-agent quest.

Outfielders

Brady Anderson ... .. .. .. Will be back; could move to center field.

Harold Baines ... ... .. .. Should be re-signed after solid season.

Damon Buford ... ... ... .. Probably will start season at Triple-A.

Mike Devereaux ... .. .. .. Could be trade bait, depending on Hammonds' situation.

Jeffrey Hammonds ... ... .. Neck injury clouds future.

Mark McLemore ... ... .. .. Big season guarantees return.

Sherman Obando .. ... .. .. Won't have Rule V to keep him in majors.

Lonnie Smith ... ... ... .. Probably won't be asked back.

Jack Voigt ... ... .. .. .. Big finish makes him likely outfield reserve.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°