The Orioles have established themselves as the early favorites to win the American League East with the hurricane of transactions during the past two weeks. They strengthened themselves so much that by midday Thursday, after Roberto Alomar had signed on and before David Cone had made his decision, a respected general manager was moved to make an astonishing prediction.
Should the Orioles get Cone, the GM was asked, how good could they be in 1996?
"Print the tickets," he replied. As in playoff tickets.
The Orioles didn't get Cone, but they will get somebody. New GM Pat Gillick sees a hole in the rotation, and he has shown to be quite adept at plugging holes. If not Cone, then maybe Kenny Rogers or Chuck Finley, or perhaps a trade for Cincinnati's David Wells or John Smiley.
Any one of those pitchers would do nothing to hurt the Orioles' standing as off-season AL East favorites, and while they are loading up, the rest of the teams in the division are going through upheaval this off-season.
The Boston Red Sox, the defending AL East champions, have lost a key member of their rotation, Erik Hanson, and their closer, Rick Aguilera. They re-signed Jose Canseco to an obscene two-year, $9 million contract, and in the process exacerbated a nasty contract situation with first baseman Mo Vaughn (who will want something in the neighborhood of four years and $24 million, in the aftermath of Alomar's three-year, $18 million signing).
Boston will go into next season with serious questions in its bullpen, at second base and in center field and right. The Red Sox don't have a true leadoff hitter. Sure, they've added Tom Gordon and catcher Mike Stanley (who is bound to be an improvement over Mike Macfarlane), but they will be hard-pressed to get repeat performances out of guys like Lee Tinsley, Troy O'Leary and Tim Wakefield.
GM Dan Duquette was the toast of the game this past season, when he threw some junk together to form a division champion. He'll have to do the same thing again next year to contend.
Re-signing Cone was a life-saver for the New York Yankees, who otherwise would've been looking at a rotation with Dwight Gooden as the No. 1 starter. But their rotation lacks depth without Jack McDowell; the general feeling around the game is they blew it by not offering McDowell arbitration.
They gave a five-year contract to a very average first baseman in Tino Martinez, and they dealt for catcher Joe Girardi in a trade that nobody outside of the Yankees' organization seems to understand. They'll start next season with rookie Derek Jeter at shortstop, and they must have run-production from Ruben Sierra (nothing like building a house on a sand foundation).
Toronto used to be the place all free agents wanted to go. But this off-season, the only use anyone seems to have for the Blue Jays is as leverage in contract negotiations. Alomar? Gone. Paul Molitor? Gone. Al Leiter? See ya. Randy Myers wouldn't sign there, and neither would Aguilera.
Alomar talked about how he wanted to win, not play for a rebuilding club. Right now, the Blue Jays are to baseball what disco is to dancing -- outdated. White polyester suits and Blue Jays hats can be found in the same closet corners.
The Detroit Tigers are building slowly. Their big off-season acquisition is Mark Parent, a backup catcher for most of his career. Check back with the Tigers in 1998, the year they open their new stadium. They might be something to worry about by then.
This is the Orioles' division to lose, and Gillick isn't even done yet. Another pitcher, a veteran outfielder, a catcher, maybe another right-hander for the bullpen.
That GM was right. Print the tickets.
Will Bill step in for Cal?
The day Davey Johnson was introduced as Orioles manager, he made some vague references about talking to Cal Ripken about scheduling a day to end his streak of consecutive games. If that event occurs in 1996, there is a chance that Ripken will be replaced in the lineup by his brother, Bill, who yesterday was signed to a minor-league contract. Bill Ripken played shortstop for Triple-A Buffalo this past year. . . . Making a deal for Wells or Smiley is going to be tough, because Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden wants at least one young pitcher who can join his rotation next year. Gillick won't part with Jimmy Haynes or Rocky Coppinger, but how about Arthur Rhodes and Rick Krivda for Smiley? Bowden needs to cut salary, and Smiley is scheduled to make $4.6 million next season. . . .
Lost amid the hoopla of the Alomar signing was Johnson's statement that he wants to establish Curtis Goodwin as an everyday player, in left field. With Goodwin and Jeffrey Hammonds at the bottom of the order and Brady Anderson and Alomar at the top, the Orioles will be a much more dynamic offensive team. Johnson's Cincinnati team intimidated opponents this past year with its speed. . . . Johnson has been interviewing a number of candidates for hitting coach, but it appears Mike Easler ultimately will get the job. Gillick confirmed Friday that Easler is the front-runner. . . .
Gillick figured that because of the deferred, noninterest-bearing dollars in the Orioles' offer to Cone, the right-hander's deal here would've been worth about $15.6 million, or about $4 million less than what the Yankees offered. Nonetheless, Orioles executives were disappointed Cone did not choose to play for what they think will be a better team than the Yankees. Ultimately, Cone took the most lucrative deal, which shouldn't be too surprising; he is heavily involved in the players association, and his agent, Steve Fehr, is the brother of union head Donald Fehr. Other agents were thrilled Cone took the Yankees' offer -- the richest deal in history for a pitcher -- because in doing so he immediately drove up the market value of fellow free agents like Rogers and Finley.
In the matter of one week, the Kansas City Royals acquired two players trailing poor reputations. Dodgers executives could barely contain their glee after acquiring steady Greg Gagne and dumping error-prone shortstop Jose Offerman on the Royals. The Padres were glad to rid themselves of Bip Roberts; disliked by teammates for his alleged reluctance to play through nicks and pains, he was dealt to the Royals for Joyner. . . .
The Pittsburgh Pirates are moving Jeff King from third base to first. . . . The Cardinals gave millions of reasons for Tom Henke to reconsider his decision to retire, but as of now, Henke says, he's planning to sit out next year. He turned down an offer of arbitration from St. Louis, which potentially could've meant an award of more than $3 million for the right-hander. If Henke doesn't sign by Jan. 8, he cannot re-sign with the Cardinals until May 1, a possibility he isn't ruling out entirely. "If I do play," he said, "it will be with the Cardinals. But right now I don't think I want to play. . . ."
The Blue Jays, having tried and failed to sign Aguilera and Myers, swapped a couple of pitchers for Bill Risley and a minor-league second baseman last week and will give Risley a shot at being a closer. No one questions Risley's arm and ability, but scouts do wonder how he'll handle pitching in the ninth inning. . . . The Texas Rangers played host to Cuban defectors Osvaldo Fernandez and Livan Hernandez last week, but club officials are skeptical of their chances of signing the two pitchers. They also wonder just how good Fernandez and Hernandez really are. "There's a lot of hype about these guys," said one, "and they'll probably get a lot more [money] than they deserve." Gillick said the Orioles are interested in the pair, but now thinks it's doubtful the pitchers will visit Baltimore. . . . Look for former Cleveland first baseman Paul Sorrento to land with the Seattle Mariners. . . . Happy holidays to Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, and we hope you are making good progress with those New Year's resolutions.
By the numbers
* During the past five years, only one player, Tony Gwynn, has a higher batting average (.358) than Roberto Alomar (.327) against right-handed pitching.
* Alomar committed four errors last season, Cal Ripken seven, in 272 games between them. Orioles second basemen committed 16 errors by themselves in '95.
* New Orioles closer Randy Myers converted seven of 12 save opportunities when he started an inning with a one-run lead last summer.
* Left-hander Kent Mercker, acquired by the Orioles last weekend, never has pitched more than 143 innings in a season during his career.
* Alomar hit seven homers last May, six the rest of the year.
* Alomar hit into 43 double plays the previous three seasons.
* There were 174 homers hit at Camden Yards this past year, which ranked among the major-league highs. The others: Coors Field (Colorado), 241; Tiger Stadium, 185; Metrodome (Minnesota), 179; Anaheim Stadium, 178; Seattle's Kingdome, 174.
* B. J. Surhoff batted .286 when hitting third in the Milwaukee lineup last summer, and .391 when he hit sixth.
* Alomar and Surhoff combined for 88 strikeouts in 932 at-bats this past year. The two regulars they replace in the Orioles' lineup, Bret Barberie and Leo Gomez, combined for 73 strikeouts in 364 at-bats.
* Alomar needs four more stolen bases to reach 300 for his career.
* Jesse Orosco ranks fourth among active pitchers for holding opponents to the lowest batting average during his career (.222), behind Sid Fernandez (.209), Tom Henke (.211) and Randy Johnson (.213). Orosco ranks third in games (819), behind Lee Smith (943) and Dennis Eckersley (901), and Roger McDowell is eighth (682).