Money to burn, but where to turn?


Here we go again. The Orioles are pursuing Jack McDowell, pursuing Andy Benes, pursuing Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro. But even with new owner Peter Angelos ready to splurge, they might go 0-for-4.

The prospect is frightening, especially if McDowell and Benes wind up with AL East rivals. It's maddening, too, when you come to realize that money alone can't solve the Orioles' problems.

The free-agent class isn't good enough to guarantee that the club can sign an impact player. And the farm system isn't deep enough to provide a surplus of prospects for major trades.

Meanwhile, the Orioles don't know about Gregg Olson, don't know about Jeffrey Hammonds, don't know if they'll lose their closer and outfield phenom from a team that finished 10 games behind Toronto.

Both are scheduled to be re-evaluated this week, but the Orioles probably won't learn until next spring if Olson needs reconstructive elbow surgery, or if Hammonds is fully recovered from a herniated disk in his neck.

The club's only choice is to plan as if neither will be available in 1994. That's not difficult with Hammonds, who appeared in only 33 games last season. In fact, it's even possible with Olson.

"I don't know if you ever decide [on Olson's status]," manager Johnny Oates said Sunday night from his home in Colonial Heights, Va. "It's not going to change. You go ahead and make your plans."

Indeed, club officials already are targeting a free-agent reliever -- right-hander Steve Farr. The New York Yankees' former closer appears a logical fit, assuming he's healthy himself.

Farr, 36, had elbow trouble of his own last season, and the Yankees responded by trading for Lee Smith. Now, both are free agents, but Farr reportedly isn't thrilled about returning to New York.

The Orioles could offer Farr a high-profile role, either as Olson's setup man or the substitute closer. Farr, a native of Cheverly, Md., almost certainly would consider playing in Baltimore.

"I'm counting on Gregg," Oates said. "But we can't put all our eggs in one basket until we know for sure. If he's not healthy, we'll go to a backup plan. And if he is healthy, we'll have him and the backup plan -- it'll make us stronger."

The backup plan still could be the right-left combination of Alan Mills and Brad Pennington, but Farr was an outstanding setup man for Kansas City before averaging 26 saves in three seasons with the Yankees.

Would he be willing to return to a lesser role? "He's flexible," said Steve Fehr, one of his agents. "It's slightly premature to get into that type of discussion at this point. But obviously, he's done a number of things in his career."

At the very least, Farr is an interesting possibility, but he wouldn't win the division for the Orioles. McDowell or Benes could, if added to a rotation that includes Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

The problem is, the Orioles probably will be bidding against the Yankees and Toronto for both pitchers. The Yankees' farm system is among the best in the game, and the Blue Jays' isn't far behind.

The Padres want prospects for Benes. The White Sox are more difficult to figure, but if they sign Palmeiro or Clark, they'd probably take the same for McDowell. Otherwise, they'd be facing a third straight arbitration hearing with their $4 million pitcher and the loss of him as a free agent next year.

To complete such a trade, the Orioles probably would need to part with three top prospects. Pennington and left-hander Arthur Rhodes again will be in demand. San Diego expressed previous interest in shortstop Manny Alexander and outfielder Damon Buford.

After watching Curt Schilling in the postseason, club officials should think twice about trading Rhodes and Pennington, perhaps the two hardest throwers in the organization. Besides, how can they strip a farm system where most of the other top prospects spent last season at Single-A?

Ordinarily under such circumstances, the free-agent market is a better solution, but this year it's problematic. If Clark re-signs with San Francisco, the price for Palmeiro would skyrocket, and vice versa. Pitchers? There's no one exciting. Sid Fernandez tops the Orioles' list, along with Dennis Martinez.

Ideally, Angelos wants to make the same splash new Giants owner Peter Magowan did by signing Barry Bonds last winter, but such a player isn't available. It's a cruel world, knowing the Orioles are finally willing to spend, at a time when restraint might be their best option.

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