O's head south with winning feeling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The city of Baltimore may be courting NFL owner Al Davis, but the Orioles have appropriated his motto. In the wake of the club's busiest off-season in history, there is only one way to look at the 1994 season.

Just win, baby.

New owner Peter Angelos has done his part, stocking a competitive team with new talent and making it clear that he will spend whatever is necessary to get to the World Series. Major League Baseball has done its part, too, adding a playoff tier that makes it possible to get into the postseason without overtaking the two-time defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays.

Now, it falls to manager Johnny Oates and his upgraded roster to take the next step, and he will get to work later this week when the Orioles open spring training camp at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla. The pitchers and catchers open workouts Friday and the full squad will be in camp five days later for the club's most legitimate assault on the American League pennant in a decade.

If all that means added pressure on Oates and the front-office officials who assembled the roster, they don't seem to be feeling the heat.

"I don't look at it that way," said general manager Roland Hemond. "You would much rather be in a position to go in with more confidence, rather than some years when you go in hoping to win but knowing that you might not have all the talent you need. If you have talent and depth, at least you've got a chance to overcome the unexpected."

The Orioles appear to be a far better club than the one that pushed the Blue Jays for five months last year, but Oates expects to take the same low-key approach that got him through a trying 1993 season.

"I'm going to do the same job no matter what," Oates said. "I'm going to do the best I can no matter what kind of team I've got. If that isn't good enough, then I shouldn't be there."

Perhaps, but he can't wait to get there. The Orioles remained in contention into September in each of the past two seasons with far less talent than the club he will bring into camp this spring. The acquisition of left-hander Sid Fernandez solidifies the starting rotation, the addition of all-time saves leader Lee Smith should stabilize the bullpen and the arrival of run-producing infielders Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo gives the club tremendous offensive potential.

"I'm looking forward to this ballclub," Oates said. "I think that this team is going to be fine. There are no bad apples . . . no headaches . . . just a lot of guys who want to play. Motivating them is not going to be a problem."

There still are questions. There always are questions. The 1993 season was derailed by a series of late-season injuries that made it difficult to compete with the talented Blue Jays. The Orioles went without their best starting pitcher (Mike Mussina) and their best reliever (Gregg Olson) down the stretch. They lost seven members of the starting lineup for varying periods during the season.

"You just can't afford to lose two or three of your best players," Oates said. "Last year, we lost every player except Cal Ripken and Harold Reynolds at some point, and we still stayed in it. You have to give our players credit. Going down the stretch, we lost our ace and our closer, and our No. 3 hitter [Mike Devereaux] was not healthy. I'd like to see Toronto or anybody else try to win doing that."

Some of those questions remain. Mussina still has to prove his durability after a season of back and shoulder problems. So does right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who is coming back from a neck injury. They each were declared healthy over the winter, but physical questions can never really be answered outside the white lines.

The Orioles won't have to worry about Olson's physical condition anymore, but they still have to wonder about their closer. Smith, 36, saved 46 games last year, but his vulnerability to the long ball raised doubts about the strength of his arm.

If the new Orioles are good, they still need to be lucky if they are going to fulfill the promise of the post-Eli Jacobs era.

"We have got to dodge the injuries this year," Oates said. "You can only back up your depth so far."

To their credit, the Orioles went out of their way to back themselves up in every area. They brought back former Orioles utility man Rene Gonzales to compete for a reserve infield role. They signed veteran catcher Rich Gedman to a minor-league contract to add depth behind the plate. They signed free-agent reliever Mark Eichhorn to deepen the bullpen. They added veteran outfielder Henry Cotto and re-signed outfielder Lonnie Smith to put more experience on the bench. The turnover has been so dramatic that it raises one more question:

Will the Orioles have the same positive chemistry that has helped them get over the rough spots the past couple of years?

The club pursued free-agent first baseman Will Clark because the front office felt his hard-nosed approach to the game would put a sharper edge on the team's personality, but ended up signing the quiet, more sensitive Palmeiro. The Orioles also signed the soft-spoken Fernandez to replace clubhouse leader Rick Sutcliffe and allowed Olson to become a free agent.

There may be little doubt that the 1994 club is more talented than last year's model, but there also is little doubt that Sutcliffe and Olson will be missed by their former teammates and the fans.

"The two people involved -- Sutt and Gregg Olson -- have made a significant contribution and a big impact," said Ripken. "The reality is that these things happen in baseball and you have to accept them, but you're going to miss their presence and talent.

"Maybe I am speaking from the personal side, because they are both very good friends, but it was comforting to look down and see Gregg Olson in the bullpen, and if things were going bad, it was good to know a guy like Rick Sutcliffe was around to help sort things out. Personally, yes, I'm disappointed."

Still, Ripken is just as quick to applaud the new ownership for the financial and philosophical commitment it has made to building a championship team.

"Seeing some of the improvements and the energy dedicated to trying to win, that is very exciting," he said. "We all know there's no special formula, but it's very encouraging . . . being the competitive team that we've been and now we're even better. It's exciting to go to spring training when you're with a competitive club."

Despite a roster that is crowded with major-league-caliber players, it doesn't figure to be a particularly competitive camp. Oates undoubtedly would insist that he will go into spring training with an open mind and give everyone a chance to make the club, but there is not a single regular position -- or slot in the starting rotation -- that is up for grabs.

Where David Segui and Glenn Davis came into spring training last year with a chance to play regularly at first base, Palmeiro will arrive without serious competition. Mark McLemore appears to be unchallenged at second base. Ripken will be at shortstop for 162 games. Sabo and Leo Gomez will share third base in the spring, but Sabo will be the starter if he is healthy.

In the outfield, the only question is whether Oates will put Brady Anderson in center field this year and move Devereaux to left. Hammonds, despite only 33 games in the majors, will play right field if there is no recurrence of the troublesome disk injury that kept him from fully establishing himself last year.

Chris Hoiles will play full-time behind the plate, and Harold Baines will spend as much time as he is able at designated hitter.

The competition will be for the extra position slots. Gonzales will compete with Tim Hulett and Gomez for the infield utility roles. Cotto should end up with one of the extra outfield jobs -- perhaps alongside Segui, who also can fill in at first base and designated hitter. Jeff Tackett comes to camp as the reserve catcher, but the Orioles have Gedman and still are looking for alternatives.

There will be intrigue in the bullpen, where the arrival of Eichhorn figures to cost another veteran middleman his place on the roster. The Orioles re-signed Todd Frohwirth and Mark Williamson, but one of them could get squeezed out by Opening Day.

Though there is little reason to expect a cutthroat camp, there is room to wonder what the club will look like when the Orioles complete the exhibition season seven weeks from today. The emphasis will be on getting to the season opener with a healthy roster, something that no team can take for granted.

Nevertheless, the off-season spending spree has put the rest of the realigned five-team AL East on guard. The Blue Jays remain the team to beat, but the Orioles aren't going to sneak up on anybody.

"I think Baltimore has done a good job going out and getting some people," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "They have an excellent chance to win if they can stay healthy."

IT'S ALMOST SPRINGTIME

Here's a thought to warm anyone who has defrosted one too many windshields this winter: The Orioles start spring training this week.

Shaping up: The first workout date for pitchers and catchers is Friday. Daily workouts begin at 10 a.m. at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla. The full squad begins workouts on Feb. 25. All workouts are open to the public.

On the move: On March 4, the Orioles move from Sarasota to the Huggins-Stengel Complex in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the remainder of spring camp. Home exhibition games will be played at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. For ticket information, call (813) 825-3334.

Let the games begin: The Orioles open their exhibition schedule March 4 against the Toronto Blue Jays at Dunedin Stadium.

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