Ratings, Davis remind O's: Be wary of NL talent Balance of power shifts toward AL


Here's a bit of unsolicited advice for Roland Hemond as he makes final preparations for the Orioles' expected off-season shopping and swapping spree:

Be wary of agents, and general managers, bearing glossy National League statistics. The evidence suggests they could be tainted and that the NL, like the old gray mare, ain't what it used to be.

The Orioles, of course, should hardly need a reminder. Visions of Curt Schilling during the postseason, coupled with the performances of Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley, bring back painful memories of the Glenn Davis trade.

Nobody will ever know the numbers a healthy Davis would have had in Baltimore, but that trade could be Exhibit A in a comparison of the two leagues. Before last season, Davis (with 86) ranked 16th among NL home run hitters over the previous five years -- even though he had been out of the league for the previous two.

Harnisch, Schilling and Finley have had more impact in the NL than expected, even taking into consideration all three were in the developmental stage when they were traded. In recent years that has been the rule, rather than the exception.

The player ratings released last week perhaps are as much indication of the American League's recent superiority as its 8-3 record over the past 11 years in the All-Star Game (with six straight wins) and the World Series (three in a row). The ratings, which cover the past two years, are compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau and serve as guidelines in arbitration cases.

Of the 31 "A"-ranked outfielders and first basemen in the NL, nine started in the AL. Conversely, only four of the AL's top 33 players in the same category started in the NL.

The numbers are just as one-sided among starting pitchers. Of the top 24 in the NL, 10 came from the AL, and only four of the highest-rated starters originated in the NL.

For every Davis or Kevin Mitchell, neither of whom adjusted to the AL, there is a Phil Plantier, Sammy Sosa or Pete Incaviglia who flourished after going in the opposite direction -- not to mention established players such as Eddie Murray and Fred McGriff.

The NL could put together a formidable staff of pitchers with roots from the AL -- including starters Jose Rijo, Bill Swift, Dennis Martinez, Harnisch, Schilling, Mike Morgan, Jose Guzman, Greg Swindell, Doug Drabek, Bob Tewksbury and relievers Bryan Harvey and Mitch Williams.

You wouldn't trade that group for David Cone, Dave Stewart (who broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a reliever), Tim Belcher, Danny Darwin and Rick Aguilera, the best of the ex-NLers in the AL over the past two years.

This is not to suggest that the player ratings are beyond dispute (Leo Gomez is ranked one notch above Dean Palmer among third basemen). But the numbers appear overwhelming enough to suggest they are an indication that the NL has lost the balance of power it once held for more than 20 years.

For the AL, it is a buyer-beware market. You might want to keep that in mind as you read on.

First (base) things first

While the Orioles continue their search for more pitching depth, it is obvious they intend to add a hitter while being a prime player in the free-agent field. Free-agent first basemen Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark are the most likely targets.

It will cost a lot to sign either. Palmeiro turned down a $25 million, five-year offer from the Texas Rangers, who will be under a lot of pressure to re-sign him. Clark is coming off an off-year -- and a $16 million, four-year contract with the San Francisco Giants. Both turn 30 next year, Clark in March, Palmeiro in September.

Palmeiro is coming off the best year, but Clark has been more consistent. Palmeiro will be the No. 1 choice, but the Orioles probably have a better chance of signing Clark.

As distasteful as it may seem to some, Murray could be a more economical and shorter-range alternative. In his last three years with the Orioles (1986 to 1988), Murray was unhappy and, by his previous standards, unproductive (259 RBIs).

He will be 38 in February and his power has diminished. But -- and this might shock some casual observers -- in the past five years only Barry Bonds (514) has driven in more runs in the NL than Murray (472) and Clark (468).

Jack of all trades?

The Chicago White Sox are finding out that winning this year's Cy Young Award has not increased Jack McDowell's trade value. And make no mistake, the White Sox are interested in moving the man who has been their ace for the past three years.

Although he's only 27, McDowell is the oldest member of the AL's best and youngest starting rotation. Alex Fernandez is perceived as the new No. 1, with Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere moving into prominence.

Because he's a five-year man with a $5 million annual salary likely and free agency only a year away, few if any teams are willing to overload a trade for McDowell. For instance, it likely would cost the Orioles Arthur Rhodes, another prospect and an outfielder for the right to pay the big right-hander $25 million over the next five years. Don't count on that.

The New York Yankees, with a farm system reputed to be fertile, would seem to be the team with the best chance of landing McDowell -- but they are more interested in San Diego Padres right-hander Andy Benes.

Red Sox rumors

While trying to deal for the Milwaukee Brewers' B. J. Surhoff to solve their need for a catcher, the Boston Red Sox are desperately looking for a center fielder, which is why Mike Devereaux's name has come up in trade talks.

The Red Sox reportedly would be willing to give up veteran right-hander Danny Darwin, but his age (39 next year) and inconsistent medical history make him a gamble. Frank Viola, who will be 34 in April, might be more tempting.

Young reliever Ken Ryan ranks high on the wish list of a lot of teams, but he could be the Red Sox's closer of the future.

Lopes: no second look

Davey Lopes is off to a good start in his first managerial assignment in the Arizona Fall League, but that apparently won't help him get the job in Houston. Bob Watson, the Astros' new GM, has conducted a second round of interviews, but Lopes was not among those invited back.

Former catcher Bob Boone, who last year managed in the minor leagues, and Phillies third-base coach and former Padres manager Larry Bowa had second interviews with Watson and owner Drayton McLane Jr.

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