O's must put farm first for future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three weeks into October and the Orioles don't have a general manager or a manager, and they don't have a long-term plan. That comes after the GM and the skipper are in place.

No matter who is hired -- Davey Johnson and Kevin Malone, Davey Johnson and Jim Bowden -- they will have lots of work to do, for the organization is approaching a crossroads. One route leads to prosperity, the other to oblivion.

The Orioles will be at least a .500 team next year, as they almost were in 1995. The core of talent is too great for a complete collapse. Players such as Mike Mussina, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and Cal Ripken will ensure that the Orioles will compete, if not necessarily contend.

But beyond the core, there isn't much substance. They have a handful of superstars, surrounded by too few prospects and a collection of fringe major-leaguers. What is frightening for the organization is those who make up the core of superstars, besides Mussina, are all over 30 years old. What's keeping this organization together right now is an aging group of players, and the millions paid out by owner Peter Angelos, vis-a-vis the Camden Yards faithful.

They can contend next year, with an infusion of capital. Sign Roberto Alomar, a slugger such as Sammy Sosa, a couple of pitchers and a few role players and the Orioles can win the AL East.

But they need the substance for the organization to remain healthy over the long haul. It's like having nothing but sweets (Palmeiro, Mussina, etc.) and ignoring the vegetables (the prospects from the farm).

In the top two levels, the Orioles have two good pitching prospects -- Jimmy Haynes and Rocky Coppinger -- and almost nothing else. No position prospects, to be sure, other than a couple of guys who could/might be role players. That's pretty thin.

The next general manager and manager have a tremendous opportunity. They walk into an organization with resources and an owner willing to spend those resources. But they must concentrate on the substance. The farm system, the draft. The Orioles can't afford to let their fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round draft picks go unsigned, as they did this year. Better to pass on a middle reliever who wants $500,000 than to let those draft picks go in a squabble over an extra $25,000.

When Dan Duquette became the Boston Red Sox general manager in 1994, he recognized what an awesome opportunity he had to build a strong organization, so long as the farm system was thick with prospects. The Red Sox will always have the money (just as the Orioles will).

So he concentrated on the draft. That means taking chances in the middle rounds on talented prospects who say they're going to college, and spending more for a third- or fourth-round pick than most middle-round picks are paid.

The Red Sox, like the Orioles, can always have a strong core of players and sign a few free agents merely to contend. The question is how strong beyond the core they can be, and with a good farm system, they have a terrific chance to be competitive for years.

One major-league executive noted last week that while the Orioles have the superstars, it would be possible to reduce their 40-man roster to as few as 25 this winter without any problem. Remember, this is the time of year when most teams struggle to figure out which players to keep on the roster and which to expose to the Rule V draft.

Winning next year is going to be important for the successors of Roland Hemond and Phil Regan. But rebuilding the farm system is even more important for the well-being of the organization.

The Buck stops here

Susan Johnson, Davey's wife, felt proud of her husband for persevering in a rather difficult situation. Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was openly contemptuous of the manager, and made no secret of the fact she did not want him back for next season. "I've never been as proud of my husband as I am now," Susan Johnson said, after the Atlanta Braves swept the Reds in the NL Championship Series. "He got a raw deal, but he was professional to the end." . . . Buck Showalter is a good manager who is often treated as a martyr by the New York and national media because he has to suffer through the presence of hands-on owner George Steinbrenner. All that should stop, if Showalter agrees to return to the Yankees. If Showalter was so miserable, he could wait until his contract expires Oct. 31, and simply walk away. He would have a job waiting for him in Detroit, for new Tigers GM Randy Smith. But if he stays, it would be his own choice, and no one should feel sorry for him. Showalter has a very good idea, by now, exactly what Steinbrenner is all about.

Look, mom, no glove

The national television audience oohed and aaahed when Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel barehanded a bouncer in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series and started a double play. But Vizquel has made the same play about a dozen times this year, without fumbling the ball once. . . . Interesting that Houston owner Drayton McLane Jr. is bemoaning a lack of major-league support in that city, as an explanation for his ongoing talks with businessman Bill Collins about moving the Astros to the Washington area. Wasn't it McLane who shelled out those $18 million contracts to pitchers Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell, when everyone in baseball thought Drabek was on the decline and Swindell was inconsistent at best? . . . The Pirates raised ticket prices, giving Pittsburgh fans another $1 worth of incentive not to attend games there. Box seats will go -- or won't go, depending on how you look at it -- for $15 next year, instead of $14. . . . Boston manager Kevin Kennedy is about to sign a one- or two-year contract extension, beyond the 1996 season.

No place like home

Dumbest question of the postseason was asked of Cleveland right-hander Dennis Martinez, after the Indians finished off the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS. "Dennis," said the intrepid reporter, "what are the folks in Venezuela doing right now, and what does this win mean to them?" Martinez was too nice in his reply: "Well, unfortunately, I'm not from Venezuela. I'm from Nicaragua. But that's OK. They should be happy, too."

The Philadelphia Phillies could have interest in acquiring Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz to back up injury-prone slugger Darren Daulton. When backups Mike Lieberthal and Lenny Webster started last year, Philadelphia went 10-21. . . . The last time the Indians won a World Series title was in 1948, when they beat the Boston Braves -- who have since moved to Milwaukee, and Atlanta.

Atlanta starter Steve Avery took a shot at the Reds after the Braves' pitching dominated Cincinnati. "It was ridiculous," he said. "You could count the balls they hit hard on one hand." . . . San Diego Padres owner John Moores believes revenue sharing is inevitable. "Salaries are going to come down," he said, "simply because the money is just not there for people to bid up the salaries. . . . I think the cost between the poles" -- between the large-market and small-market clubs, the superstars and the scrubs -- "has got to come down because the losses are absolutely staggering."

O's in corner GM-wise?

An Orioles' source on the club's GM search: "They've really backed themselves into a corner, and might wind up having to take somebody they don't want to take." If they somehow land Cincinnati GM Bowden, however, a potential weakness could become a potential strength. . . . Boston is expected to let go of weak defensive catcher Mike Macfarlane and attempt to work out a deal for Montreal catcher Darrin Fletcher. If the Red Sox can't sign Roberto Alomar or Craig Biggio, they could settle for Delino DeShields, who Red Sox GM Duquette once traded away when both GM and player were still with the Expos. . . . Hideo Nomo's request to the Japanese media upon his arrival in his homeland this fall: "Please leave me alone."

By the numbers

* The Braves field 10 players with postseason experience before 1995, totaling 71 games; the Indians have six players who have played in 28 postseason games.

* The Indians won 27 games in their last at-bat during the regular season; the Braves won 25.

* The difference between the Reds and Braves in the NL Championship Series: The Cincinnati bullpen allowed 12 runs in 13 2/3 innings, the Atlanta bullpen allowed one run in 13 innings.

* The Braves are the first NL team since the 1963-1966 Los Angeles Dodgers to reach the World Series in three of four years.

* When the World Series began yesterday, Braves left-hander Kent Mercker had faced eight batters during the previous 26 days.

The Indians held Seattle scoreless in 46 of the 54 innings played.

* The Brewers want to make do with a payroll of $15 million next year, and they owe perpetually injured outfielder Greg Vaughn $5.675 million and infielder Pat Listach $2.2 million.

* Baseball in Dallas: The Cowboys' first preseason game had a higher television rating in the Dallas-Fort Worth area than the All-Star Game, which, of course, was played at The Ballpark in Arlington.

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