Next 2 weeks may prove critical to '94 O's

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They call it the off-season, as if to infer that the baseball season actually ends on a certain date and then picks up again the following spring.

It isn't like that any more, of course. The competition never stops. The games move indoors and upstairs, but the off-season approach of a team could be just as important as on-field strategy in the quest to win the world championship.

The Toronto Blue Jays are a great example. The decisions made last winter had a tremendous impact on their ability to become the first team in 15 years to win back-to-back titles. The Jays lost several front-line players, but their decisiveness at last year's winter meetings kept them at the top of their class.

The Orioles hope to have the same kind of success this year. They have gotten the go-ahead from new managing general partner Peter Angelos to spend a substantial sum in the free-agent market to improve the club. They had enough talent to stay in the race for most of the 1993 season, so there is room for hope that a couple of quality players will put them over the top.

But it's not as simple as that. The Orioles will have to make progress on several fronts to stay in position for a serious challenge. The month of October was relatively quiet, but the first half of November could be critical to that effort. Here's a look at what might be forthcoming over the next two weeks:

The decision: Angelos has all but announced that Doug Melvin will be the next general manager of the club, which leaves plenty of room to wonder what will become of fellow assistant GM Frank Robinson.

The last dominoes are about to fall. Angelos could announce early this week the final configuration of the Orioles front office, which will include Roland Hemond in the role of vice chairman of baseball operations -- the job former club president Larry Lucchino turned down on Friday.

Melvin figures to move into the GM role that the Orioles have been grooming him for the past eight years and Robinson figures to be very disappointed.

Robinson moved into the front office after he was fired as manager in 1991, hoping to establish himself as a viable GM candidate. He has done that, but now finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. He needs to stay active in the front office to keep his options open for a GM post with another club, but he isn't going to be happy playing a subordinate role to a man who is 17 years his junior.

The examination: Outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds soon will undergo another series of tests to determine if his injured neck is responding to the rehabilitation program that he embarked on late in the season.

Hammonds is suffering from a herniated disk in his neck -- an injury that could require surgery if he does not respond to more conservative treatment. If that is the case, he probably would be lost for all of next season.

The injury has all sorts of ramifications for the Orioles front office. If the upcoming examination goes well, the team can go ahead with its plans to move Mark McLemore to second base and concentrate on acquiring a run-producing first baseman in the free-agent market. If not, the Orioles might have to re-sign second baseman Harold Reynolds and keep McLemore in the outfield, or change their off-season priorities.

Hammonds' agent, Jeff Moorad, said last week that the Orioles' top draft choice of 1992 is making progress and feels confident that no surgery will be required. The Orioles can only hope he's right, because he has become a troublesome variable in the club's 1994 equation.

The market: The free-agent filing period will end nine days hence, leaving the Orioles to put up or shut up in the free-agent market. Angelos has said since the day he bought the team that he will spend a substantial sum to bring the club up to championship caliber. He's about to get his chance.

The Orioles are known to be interested in a number of front-line players. They would like to acquire starting pitcher Sid Fernandez and one of two veteran first basemen -- Will Clark or Rafael Palmeiro -- to solidify a decent club.

The club also needs to address the uncertainty surrounding the physical condition of relief closer Gregg Olson, who made just one appearance over the final two months of the '93 season because of a partial ligament tear in his right elbow. If he needs radical elbow surgery, the club needs to find a dependable late-inning guy to replace him. Trouble is, he probably won't put his arm to any kind of test until next spring.

What to do? The Orioles could try to trade for a top-flight closer (since no one stands out on the list of free agents), but that probably would annex some of the money earmarked for improvements in other areas and leave the club no better off than last year.

It would make more sense to gamble that Olson will be ready and spend the money on free agents who have the potential to put the Orioles over the top in 1994. If Olson is all right, everybody's happy. If not, the club can move Alan Mills into the scloser role and hope for the best.

The meetings: Hemond, Melvin and Robinson are scheduled to leave today to attend the general managers meetings in Naples, Fla. It might be a little early to do anything earth-shattering, but each set of GM meetings will take on added importance if Major League Baseball withdraws entirely from the annual winter meetings.

The December meetings used to be a trading festival, but the lack of a trade deadline and the gridlock created by free-agent uncertainty apparently has convinced the major-league general managers to stay home this year. The minor-league meetings will go on as scheduled in Atlanta, but it appears that the GMs will get together at the January owners meetings to talk trade.

Still, there could be some excitement this week. Rumors of cost-cutting campaigns in several major-league front offices has raised hope that the Orioles can pull off a significant deal this winter. If so, the groundwork likely will be laid in this kind of setting.

The staff: The Orioles could finalize the makeup of their coaching staff, depending on the outcome of the managerial search in Houston.

First-base coach Davey Lopes is considered a leading candidate to replace Art Howe as manager of the Astros, which would leave the Orioles with at least one coaching vacancy. The firing of third-base coach Al Farraro appeared to open a job, but Hemond said he and manager Johnny Oates have not yet decided whether to replace him or realign the remaining coaches.

If Lopes leaves, the Orioles would have to replace him. Former Red Sox coach and ex-Oriole Al Bumbry is one of a number of unemployed coaches who have contacted Hemond in the hope of joining the Orioles staff.

The alumni: The Orioles have several potential free agents of jTC their own to deal with. Hemond met with the agent for Harold Baines a couple of times during the past few days and appears likely to re-sign the veteran designated hitter. The club also would like to re-sign Tim Hulett and Mike Pagliarulo, but probably will play it coy with Reynolds and Rick Sutcliffe, and play it very cool with veteran outfielder Lonnie Smith, relief pitcher Mark Williamson and starter Fernando Valenzuela.

That's just on the home front. There are greater issues facing the game at large, including the selection of a new commissioner and another chapter in baseball's ongoing labor conflict.

Fasten your seat belts. It could be a very turbulent winter.

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