Change-oriented Orioles still on lookout for another front-line pitcher


In the space of one week, the Orioles signed all-time save leader Lee Smith and four other free agents in the latest phase of a massive organizational face lift.

But as the off-season draws to a close, the club continues to look for one more front-line starting pitcher.

General manager Roland Hemond said Friday that he would be happy to open camp with a club that has added Sid Fernandez, Rafael Palmeiro, Chris Sabo and a host of lesser players, but he still is working hard to make further improvements.

According to a club source, the team has not given up hope of making a deal that would bring Houston Astros right-hander Pete Harnisch back to Baltimore.

There have been rumors in Houston that a deal with the Orioles still is being discussed. One radio report on Friday had the Astros ready to trade Harnisch and another player to the Orioles for a two-player package that includes outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds.

That's ridiculous, of course. The Orioles are not offering Hammonds, but the Astros have made it known that any package for Harnisch must include a front-line outfielder. If Hammonds is not on the table, than the Orioles would have to persuade Astros general manager Bob Watson to accept a package that includes center fielder Mike Devereaux or alter his priorities.

It gets pretty complicated. That's why deals of such magnitude are so seldom made.

Club owner Peter Angelos has told his front-office executives that he'll absorb another big salary if they can persuade the Astros to give up Harnisch or the San Diego Padres to part with Andy Benes, but the Orioles are not willing to give away the farm.

Why Lee Smith?

No sooner had the Orioles signed Smith than the skeptics began to come forward with reports of his dwindling velocity and uncertain future.

That's fair enough because the big right-hander is 36 and has a lot of miles on his arm, but the real numbers don't paint such a discouraging picture.

Smith saved 46 games in 53 save opportunities last year -- coming up one save short of his career high -- and the seven blown saves were not significantly above his average (6.6) for the six seasons in which blown saves have been tabulated.

In fact, Smith's save efficiency (.860) was higher than those of the Texas Rangers' Tom Henke (.851), Minnesota Twins' Rick Aguilera (.850) and Orioles' Gregg Olson (.829).

If there is cause for alarm, it is the 11 home runs he surrendered in 58 innings, which might be an indication that the zip is coming off his fastball.

The Orioles will have to wait and see, but Smith appears to be a solid acquisition at a bargain price.

Family squabble

Hall of Famer Willie Mays seemed a little grumpy last week when he came to New York to pick up the National League Most Valuable Player trophy for godson Barry Bonds.

"We give him $47 million, he can pick up his own award," Mays said from the dais.

Bonds missed the New York Baseball Writers Association banquet because he had a charity commitment the same weekend. He was scheduled to make an appearance in Los Angeles for an organization called RBI (Rebuild Baseball in the Inner city), but that function was canceled in time for him to

reschedule and appear in New York if he had really wanted to.

McDowell feud still simmering

The Chicago White Sox refuse to tiptoe around right-hander Jack McDowell, who is trying to hit them up for $6.5 million in salary arbitration.

Jack Gould, the White Sox senior vice president of baseball who will carry the club's $5.3 million offer into the arbitration hearing 00 with McDowell, made his case a little early in an interview with the Daily Southtown Economist last week.

"He's had a declining performance over the last three years," Gould said. "His ERA has gone up, his hits per nine innings have gone up and his opponents' batting average has gone up. He won the Cy Young, it's true, but he's not the best pitcher in the American League. In fact, he's the fourth-best pitcher on our staff. He's got the greatest run support you can have. That's not to say he's not a good pitcher . . . but when a guy says he's worth $6.5 million, he'd better be more than good."

McDowell's agent and brother, Jim, did not hesitate to fire back.

"You can crunch numbers any way you want," he said, "but right now, there is a big, shiny, silver plaque sitting in Jack's room. No amount of number-crunching in the world is going to change that."

Revenue sharing revisited

The Orioles are being good sports about the revenue-sharing proposal that was adopted by baseball management at the recent owners meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

If revenues remain constant, the Orioles' organization would be one of the teams hit hardest by the new plan.

According to a club source, the Orioles would be liable to contribute as much as $6 million per year to the revenue pool when and if the plan is fully operational, while the lowest-revenue team could draw that much or more.

That would be the monetary equivalent of the Orioles giving Cal Ripken to the Padres to achieve competitive balance.

In defense of Bo

The California Angels have taken some criticism for their decision to sign free-agent outfielder Bo Jackson, and it might seem well-placed when you look at his numbers from last year. He had 16 home runs and 45 RBIs in 284 at-bats -- which isn't bad -- but his 106 strikeouts would project to a major-league-record 209 over a 560 at-bat season.

So why did the Angels sign him? Because they needed some outfield depth and some personality, both of which Jackson can provide in a reserve role. In a best-case scenario, he could improve on last year and play more than part time, though the downside risk of a career-ending injury is just as great.

The Angels are hoping to polish their image and, perhaps, catch lightning in a bottle.

It doesn't take a complete stretch of the imagination to see anyone winning the weak four-team American League West.

No Will, but a way

The San Francisco Giants are looking for a way to compensate for the loss of free-agent first baseman Will Clark, but manager Dusty Baker's latest idea is raising some eyebrows.

He claims he will bat outfielder Willie McGee in the No. 3 spot ahead of third baseman Matt Williams and Bonds.

McGee is an excellent contact hitter who batted .301 for the Giants last year, but he no longer has great speed, and he has driven in more than 50 runs only once since his 105-RBI performance in 1987.

He figures to get on base in front of San Francisco's big RBI producers, but the club may need more run production from that spot in the order.

Bo still knows

One more thing. Before you write Jackson off, consider this: Only three major-leaguers hit a ball farther in the regular season last year.

Jackson's 472-foot blast at the Kingdome last year was the sixth-longest home run of the year, according to IBM Tale of the Tape figures.

Detroit Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder had three home runs that were longer, including a 484-foot shot that was the longest.

Rangers third baseman Dean Palmer and Colorado Rockies first baseman Andres "Thin Air" Galarraga also went deeper than Bo.

Going home

Minor-league outfielder Mark Leonard, whom the Orioles acquired from the Giants for infielder Steve Scarsone last spring, never lived up to the big buildup he received from the Orioles' scouting department.

He was outrighted by the Orioles and recently accepted a Triple-A contract -- and no spring training invitation -- from the Giants.

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