The Orioles have been the most active team in the major leagues this off-season, but the signing of free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro does not bring an end to the club's winter reconditioning program.
Quite the contrary.
No sooner had the Orioles put Palmeiro into the third spot in their batting order than the talk turned to a variety of other potential acquisitions.
General manager Roland Hemond confirmed the team has all but signed veteran reliever Mark Eichhorn and left-handed-hitting catcher Rich Gedman, and trade rumors were flying all over Oriole Park.
Eichhorn was 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA in 54 games with Toronto. Gedman spent last season in the Yankees' farm system after several solid years in Boston. "We're not through yet," Hemond said. "I don't know if you ever stop trying to improve."
Club officials have made no secret of their desire to add another quality starting pitcher to a rotation that improved with the recent acquisition of free-agent left-hander Sid Fernandez. Hemond took a step in that direction over the weekend when he contacted Philadelphia Phillies general manager Lee Thomas about left-handed starter Terry Mulholland.
"He told me he had a little interest," Thomas said, "but that's a long way from getting involved. I'm sure we'll talk some more in the coming days."
What would it take? A club source indicated yesterday that the Orioles may offer left-hander Arthur Rhodes, perhaps hoping that the Phillies will take advantage of an opportunity to pick up a strong prospect and reduce their payroll.
Mulholland, who is one year away from free agency, went 12-9 with a 3.25 ERA last season.
It isn't easy to make a deal for a starting pitcher, of course. The Orioles recently made a run at San Diego Padres ace Andy Benes without success. They continue to talk with the Houston Astros about former Oriole Pete Harnisch, but that also appears to be a pipe dream.
The club appears to have a much better chance to acquiring a solid reliever. Hemond also is involved in trade talks with the Montreal Expos, who contacted him on Sunday to express interest in displaced first baseman David Segui. The Orioles apparently are making their second attempt to acquire relief pitcher Mel Rojas, but it will take more than Segui to make that deal come together. Especially since the Expos yesterday acquired Cleveland first baseman Randy Milligan, whom they sought from the Orioles years ago in the first round of Rojas trade talks.
Rojas has been the workhorse of the Expos bullpen. He was 7-1 with a 1.43 ERA in 68 games in 1992 and 5-8, 2.95 in 66 games last season.
If the final makeup of the Orioles' pitching staff still remains a matter for speculation, all the major components of the Opening Day offensive lineup appear to be in place. Manager Johnny Oates doesn't usually work that far ahead, but he wasted no time tentatively penciling Palmeiro into the third spot in his order.
"I'm not sure yet, but that looks like where he'll be best for us," Oates said. "I think it will be in our best interests to have him in the third spot, because that's where he has performed the best, and have [Mike] Devereaux in the second spot, where he has been the best. Nothing's written in cement, but having Devereaux and Palmeiro batting behind Brady Anderson has to make Brady a better hitter, too."
Oates can't complain about the middle of the lineup either, with Cal Ripken or Harold Baines batting fourth -- depending on the pitcher -- and Chris Hoiles behind them. The Orioles figure to have Jeffrey Hammonds hitting seventh, third baseman Leo Gomez eighth and Mark McLemore in the ninth.
McLemore rates a higher place in the order after a strong performance at the plate last year, but Oates may be hesitant to hit Gomez ninth because his lack of speed could inhibit Anderson at the top of the order.
Gomez's place in the lineup was seriously in doubt only a few weeks ago, but the club's inability to re-sign free agent Mike Pagliarulo has thrust him back into the same position as when spring training opened last February. Hemond would not rule out further discussions with agent Jim Bronner (who also represents Palmeiro) about veteran third baseman Chris Sabo, but Oates seems satisfied that Gomez will rebound from a wrist injury to re-establish himself as a run-production threat.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Gomez will bounce back," Oates said. "I think this has made him even hungrier."
The Orioles have every reason to believe that the offensive lineup will be dramatically improved next year. Anderson is coming off two straight solid seasons. Devereaux's run-production numbers dropped off last year, but he is a legitimate 100-RBI threat. Hoiles led the team with 29 home runs even though he lost significant time to a back injury.
"There is no telling what Chris Hoiles is going to do this year," Oates said, "and Hammonds could turn out to be the best hitter in the league. He's got that kind of potential. It's impossible to make out a lineup today, but it sure is fun trying."
That optimism is not limited to front-office officials. The acquisition of Palmeiro and Fernandez has raised the level of expectations throughout the organization.
"We've gone to spring training with renewed optimism the last two years," Ripken said, "but adding Rafael Palmeiro instantly makes your offense better and adding Sid Fernandez instantly makes your pitching staff better. Just by what we've done so far, I'm going to be a little more optimistic, but there is no sure-fire formula to winning the pennant."
Nevertheless, the Orioles appear to have tilted the odds much more in their direction.
* To make room for Palmeiro, the Orioles requested release waivers on outfielder Mark Leonard, whom the club acquired from the San Francisco Giants on March 20 for Steve Scarsone. Leonard spent most of the season with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings and went 1-for-15 for the Orioles with three sacrifice flies.