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Loss of Mariner may be net gain

The Orioles needed Jay Buhner, but they're better off without him.

The addition of Buhner would have created more long-term problems than it solved in the short term. Alex Ochoa should be happy Buhner re-signed with Seattle. So should Peter Angelos.

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A four-year contract for Buhner would have been disastrous to all those talented young outfielders in the Orioles' farm system. A $4.5 million annual salary would have created a payroll crisis.

The Orioles were looking at five players earning more than $22 million -- and that was before signing Ben McDonald and Chris Hoiles, who could become restricted free agents under the owners' new economic system.

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Salary cap or not, the payroll would have been close to a breaking point, not that Angelos pays attention to such things. Buhner, Danny Jackson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- won't anyone take the man's money?

It's great Angelos is the polar opposite of Eli Jacobs, but for examples of owners who spent too much too soon, see Drayton McLane in Houston and Peter Magowan in San Francisco.

McLane couldn't contain himself after buying the Astros two years ago, signing free agents Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell and awarding long-term contracts to several young players, including Steve Finley.

True, the Astros contended for the NL Central title last season, but where did it get them? They traded Pete Harnisch to reduce their payroll, and now they're shopping Finley and Ken Caminiti.

In San Francisco, Magowan signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.75 million contract in December 1992, and the Giants nearly won the NL West title the next season. But again, what was the long-term gain?

The Giants couldn't afford to re-sign Will Clark, and now seem destined to lose starting pitcher Bill Swift and reliever Mike Jackson as free agents. They're going backward.

Buhner made sense for the Orioles, made sense as the high-salaried replacement for Mike Devereaux, made sense with Brady Anderson the club's only healthy outfielder if the strike ends by spring training.

Made sense for one year, not four.

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The Orioles' interest in Buhner was easily understood: Since 1980, they've had only two outfielders hit 25 homers in a season -- Mike Young in '85, and Larry Sheets in '87. Both were one-year wonders.

Buhner, 30, was on pace for his fourth straight 25-homer season when the strike hit. He's a good outfielder with a great arm, and his .394 on-base average last season was a career high.

So much for what might have been.

Now consider the entire picture.

The addition of Buhner likely would have resulted in the trade of Ochoa, a right fielder who is the top position prospect in the Orioles' farm system.

The Yankees kept third-base prospect Russell Davis after signing Wade Boggs, and Davis' trade value diminished. The Orioles failed to trade Manny Alexander, Arthur Rhodes and Brad Pennington at their peaks. They could not have made the same mistake with Ochoa.

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Indeed, the signing of Buhner would have shaken the entire farm system -- Triple-A prospects Mark Smith, Sherman Obando and Jim Wawruck all would have been squeezed, and Ochoa's Double-A teammate, Curtis Goodwin, might have been traded as well.

Anderson is signed through 1996, Buhner would have been signed through '98 and Jeffrey Hammonds is years away from free agency under every collective-bargaining proposal.

Ochoa and Goodwin should be ready by '96. It's possible the Orioles could have traded Anderson to make room for Goodwin in center, but Anderson has a limited no-trade clause, and an option for '97.

Trading Ochoa and Goodwin?

A fine message that would have been.

The idea of a farm system is to produce major-leaguers for the parent club, not other teams. The Orioles remain in position to do without Buhner. They should seize the moment.

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Specifically, they should sign a veteran outfielder such as Andy Van Slyke for one year, then let him compete with Obando, Smith and Damon Buford in spring training, giving Ochoa and Goodwin full seasons at Triple-A.

The Yankees learned their lesson: They recently signed Tony Fernandez to a two-year contract, giving shortstop prospect Derek Jeter ample time to develop without burying him the way they did with Davis.

Four months ago, former Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin said Obando had "Jay Buhner-type power." If that's true, the Orioles just saved themselves $15.5 million.

What if Van Slyke is a bust, and none of the kids can play? Make a trade in June -- not for a Lonnie or Dwight Smith, but for a legitimate slugger.

And if Angelos is still itching to spend?

Fine, point him toward a pitcher.

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Buhner would have been a perfect fit for the Orioles, but only the 1995 Orioles, and only with an unlimited payroll.

As it was, the Orioles bid $18 million.

They still need a Jay Buhner.

But maybe -- in an Ochoa, or an Obando -- they've got one coming.


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