Three weeks to win a pennant, that's what this is. Three weeks to win a pennant, and the Orioles are already behind.
They're going to catch up, because they can't help but catch up. For once, they have no excuse, with only a handful of other clubs willing to add salaries.
Indeed, this is a defining moment for general manager Roland Hemond, even though Peter Angelos is the self-proclaimed "supreme and complete boss," not to mention commissioner/owner/GM.
Another "Oops, we lost Ron Gant," and Angelos will be mighty hot.
The New York Yankees already have pulled off the deal of the year. And Hemond never has been known for bold, decisive action.
Jack McDowell is a Yankee, folks. Jack McDowell, acquired for minor-league pitcher Keith Heberling and a player to be named. Jack McDowell, the American League's leading winner in the '90s.
The Yankees gambled by trading for McDowell on Dec. 14, knowing he was 19 days short of free agency, knowing a labor agreement could restore his lost service time from the strike.
They gambled, and they won.
And now, they boast the most imposing staff in the American League East, while the Orioles face major questions, especially in their bullpen.
When was the last time Hemond acquired a Cy Young Award winner for a minor-leaguer with six games of experience above Single-A?
Heck, when was the last time anyone did?
The opportunity arose only because of the strike. And now other opportunities will arise, with hundreds of free agents available and most clubs in financial retreat.
Hemond can't possibly blow this.
Don't like the current free-agent pitchers? Pete Harnisch and Kenny Rogers are among those who would become available if they're not offered salary arbitration -- and they could be signed without losing draft picks.
Rather make a trade? The small-market clubs are desperate to dump salaries. Even the cash-cow Los Angeles Dodgers want to cut their payroll from $38.5 million to $25 million.
The only teams that appear willing to spend are the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rockies. The Yankees already made their big move. A team such as Boston could swing a blockbuster for Montreal's Marquis Grissom and Ken Hill, but only if it can reduce somewhere else.
The Orioles' plan apparently is to sign left-handed closer John Franco now, then wait for the complete free-agent list. But they also should consider including top prospects in major trades -- they always overrate their young players, anyway.
They need to be quick, clever, aggressive.
They need to flex their muscles and start acting like the Yankees or Blue Jays.
This isn't like last winter, when Angelos opened the checkbook and the Orioles signed five free agents -- Rafael Palmeiro, Sid Fernandez, Lee Smith, Chris Sabo and Mark Eichhorn.
Any Rotisserie geek could have made those choices, and two of them -- Fernandez and Sabo -- were busts.
The possibilities now are more complex, more compelling. Sign free agent Kevin Brown or trade with Kansas City for Tom Gordon? Trade for Gordon now or wait for more free agents? Gordon might become one himself, for all they know.
The Orioles also need an outfielder, but they should worry about pitching first and everything else later. It's a given that one or two pitchers will get hurt, especially with an abbreviated spring training.
What's more, the bullpen is a mess.
Now that Eichhorn is coming off rotator-cuff surgery, the top two relievers are Armando Benitez, who has made three appearances above Double-A, and Alan Mills, who had a 5.16 ERA last season.
The top left-hander is -- gasp! -- Brad Pennington.
No wonder the Orioles are so eager to sign Franco. The problem is, the Brooklyn-born left-hander might prefer to stay with the New York Mets, even for less money.
That would be disastrous, but the bullpen isn't the only issue the Orioles need to address. The Yankees' rotation is clearly superior.
Jimmy Key reportedly is throwing well coming off shoulder surgery. Sterling Hitchcock, Scott Kamieniecki and Melido Perez were a combined 21-11 last season. And now Black Jack gets added to the mix.
The Orioles' top three starters are Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Kate Moss -- oops, Fernandez.
It's nice that Fernandez has lost so much weight. But he stands a better chance of gaining 20 than winning 20 -- check his track record.
Can El Thin be trusted? Can Arthur Rhodes? Can Jamie Moyer?
You know the answer. Hemond knows the answer. And, rest assured, Angelos knows the answer, too.
Hemond traded for Craig Lefferts instead of David Cone in '92. He wouldn't trade Rhodes and Manny Alexander for Fred McGriff in '93. But, back then, he had an excuse -- former owner Eli Jacobs.
Now, it's everyone else who has an excuse, and Hemond is one of the few buyers in a buyer's market.
What more could a GM ask?
If Hemond wants a free-agent pitcher, he can go get him. If he loses Franco, he can steal a small-market closer. If he knows the Expos will deal Grissom, he can beat the Red Sox to him.
The possibilities are endless, if Hemond shows the right initiative.
Three weeks to win a pennant.
Angelos is counting.
O'S OPEN APRIL 26
The Orioles will open their season April 26 in Kansas City, Mo., against the Royals, it was announced yesterday. The Royals said that the game, originally scheduled for 8:05 p.m. Eastern time, will start at 2:35 p.m.
The game had been scheduled as the last of a three-game series for the Orioles. They are scheduled to begin a four-game series in Minnesota the next day.
The Orioles' home opener is scheduled for May 2.