The Orioles have made good on their promise to improve the starting rotation. They have spent the past week working hard to bulk up the offense with the possible acquisition of Rafael Palmeiro. The club appears to be one step away from making a legitimate run at the American League East title, but there is still that one nagging question.
Closer Gregg Olson continues to rehabilitate the elbow injury that cost him the final months of the 1993 season. He is confident that he will be ready to reassume his role as one of the top short relievers in the game, but the team cannot go into 1994 without making some attempt to ensure stability in such a critical area.
"It would be crazy not to have some insurance," manager Johnny Oates said. "Gregg feels he's going to be ready, but we aren't going to know for sure until he starts throwing a baseball. Ideally, we'll have Gregg, but we have to have an alternative."
Oates wasn't necessarily talking about signing another closer. He knows that most of the free-agent alternatives are as iffy as Olson's situation. The Orioles could sign Lee Smith or Jeff Reardon, but who's to say they would be better at this point in their careers than a promising Alan Mills? The club could turn to Steve Farr, but he also presents physical questions.
"I'm not saying that there is any alternative that would be up to the quality that Gregg would give us if he is healthy," Oates said, "but we have some ideas."
Chances are, the Orioles will go into spring training with Mills as the alternative closer. He throws hard and he worked adequately in that role after Olson went on the disabled list in August. The club apparently is close to signing veteran setup man Mark Eichhorn to provide depth and free Mills for a late-inning role if that becomes necessary.
Olson continues his off-season rehabilitation program in the hope that he won't need reconstructive elbow surgery to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament that has threatened his career. He said Friday that he has no serious doubts about his ability to pitch in 1994.
"I feel completely at ease with what's going to happen in the spring," he said. "Right now, I can't seem to hurt it. I can't feel it. But I guess nobody's going to believe that until next October."
The Orioles have to make an evaluation much sooner than that. They have to decide whether to tender Olson a contract on Dec. 20. If they do, he will be eligible for arbitration and should stand to parlay last year's 29 saves and 1.60 ERA into a significant raise. If they don't, he would become a free agent, but the club still would be eligible to re-sign him to a lesser deal.
It's a sticky issue. Releasing Olson -- even with the intention of re-signing him -- would be a public relations disaster, since he has saved 160 games for the Orioles in his first five seasons. Tendering him a contract could be very costly, since he likely would get about $4 million from an arbitrator for a 1994 season in which his availability is very much in question.
"I really don't know what's going to happen," Olson said. "They [the Orioles and agent Jeff Moorad] made contact a few days ago, but I don't know. It's a different kind of situation to be in. I don't know if Dec. 20 is going to be an issue or not."
The Dec. 20 date also is important to the Orioles for a related reason. If cost-conscious clubs flush a number of arbitration-eligible players into the free-agent market that day, the Orioles may be in a position to pick up the solid middle reliever that would help ensure them against an Olson breakdown.
Bad news Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers had a horrible 1993 season, but they could take some comfort in the development of some promising young pitchers who figured to solidify the club's starting rotation in 1994.
The off-season has gone as badly as their '93 free fall, and a couple of pitching prospects have gone by the board. Left-hander Angel Miranda, who was expected to spend his first full season in the rotation this year, tore a knee ligament playing winter ball and will be lost for at least half of 1994. The Brewers also lost promising Jamie McAndrew to shoulder surgery.
The loss of Miranda was particularly galling because the Brewers' front office had asked him to take the winter off instead of pitching in Puerto Rico. Now, the club has to hope that veteran left-hander Ted Higuera can work himself back into shape in the Mexican Winter League and return to the rotation.
More Brewers woes
It has to be tough to be a Brewers fan. Not only is the club in a competitive recession without much hope in sight, but the future of the organization is clouded in uncertainty.
The Brewers appeared to be on the verge of a major turnaround when the team and the community embarked on an ambitious new stadium project a few years ago, but environmental considerations delayed the project, and baseball's complicated labor situation has put it on hold indefinitely.
Owner Bud Selig apparently won't let the project go forward until the owners approve a revenue-sharing program, because he isn't sure the club can make it in Milwaukee -- new stadium or none -- without a major change in financial structure of the sport.
If a suitable plan cannot be agreed upon, there is fear in Milwaukee that Selig will sell the club to someone who will move it elsewhere.
Sounds of silence
It is Orioles general manager Roland Hemond's worst nightmare -- an owner who likes to talk.
The arrival of Peter Angelos has been a breath of fresh air for the local media, which spent five years getting the silent treatment from former owner Eli Jacobs, but that hasn't made life easier for the secretive Hemond.
He never has felt comfortable releasing details of his front-office dealings, but his new boss has made it clear to many of his top-ranking front-office employees that he will not operate the club in a cone of silence. Angelos apparently recognizes the absurdity of treating baseball transactions like state secrets.
Bo shopping around
The Chicago White Sox offered arbitration to Bo Jackson, but he said that there are three or four other teams interested in signing him.
"I will forever remain loyal to the White Sox for what they did for me," he said, "but loyalty doesn't pay the bills, if you know what I mean."
We know just what he means, but look for him to accept the club's offer of salary arbitration on Dec. 19.
Just a thought
Free-agent left-hander Bob Ojeda remains very much available and could be a solid option if the Orioles fail in their efforts to acquire a front-line starting pitcher in trade.
Attorney Ron Shapiro, who represents Ojeda, indicated that the Orioles did express some interest in the veteran pitcher early in the re-entry process. He would represent a fallback position if the Orioles can't acquire an Andy Benes or Pete Harnisch, but he is a solid veteran who could provide some leadership.
Ojeda also might welcome a season or two in Baltimore after the warm reception he received here when he made his first appearance after his recovery from injuries sustained in the tragic spring training boating accident that killed two of his Cleveland Indians teammates.
White Sox manager Gene Lamont told reporters last week that his club will fill its right-field vacancy from within. Then he dropped this bomb.
The White Sox, he said, might replace the departed Ellis Burks with a platoon of Steve Sax and Dan Pasqua. Sax, a veteran second baseman, did appear in 32 games as an outfielder and handled 39 chances without an error.
Why would the California Angels trade a pitching prospect (Jose Musset) for an aging infielder (Spike Owen) who makes more than $2 million per year and hit .157 with three RBIs after the All-Star break?
Why not? Musset is not considered to be a particularly great prospect and the New York Yankees are believed to have picked up most of the $4.25 million that Owen is guaranteed over the next two years.
It was a trade that didn't hurt either club.