They've outgrown their longtime labels as Orioles prospects, and this will be the season when the club must decide whether Manny Alexander, Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills will be a part of its future.
Alexander, Rhodes and Mills are out of options, so the Orioles cannot send them to the minor leagues without exposing them to waivers. Each has shown enough ability that there's no way they would get through this process without being claimed by another team.
For all of Rhodes' inconsistency, and despite his shoulder trouble, he is 26, left-handed and throws hard when healthy -- three attractive qualities. General managers from at least three other teams, impressed by Alexander's defensive skills at shortstop, are hoping the Orioles deal him. Even after Mills' horrible 1995 season (7.43 ERA), opposing teams continued to project good things for the right-hander.
Although others continue to see long-term potential for Mills, Rhodes and Alexander, as far as the Orioles are concerned the three need to establish themselves immediately.
Rhodes is expected to begin the season on the disabled list, and Mills could join him there, as they continue to recover from surgery. Whenever they're ready, they're both headed to the bullpen, a possible problem area for the Orioles. If they were deep in their bullpen, or if they weren't serious contenders, they might be able to carry one or two struggling pitchers. But the Orioles probably won't have that luxury this year; if Rhodes and Mills are on the active roster, they must contribute.
Alexander played 82 games at second base last year, and wasn't happy about that, saying several times he would prefer to be traded someplace where he could play regularly, and play his natural position, shortstop.
"I think Davey [Johnson, manager] will move him around in spring training," said general manager Pat Gillick. "He'll try him in different spots. He'll probably get a look at third base."
B. J. Surhoff or Bobby Bonilla will be the regular third baseman, and there could be a handful of starts for somebody else. However, Alexander will have to contend with Bill Ripken and Jeff Huson, two other utility players, for those precious few starts. Simply put, there doesn't appear to be much of a role for Alexander this year.
The one way he could become a regular is if the Orioles make the change everyone expects them to make in 1997 or 1998: Alexander becomes the shortstop, with Cal Ripken moving to third. Gillick says that isn't being discussed.
So what to do with Alexander?
"I like Manny Alexander," said Gillick. "We're not just going to give him away. He's a pretty good player."
Bullpen concerns Cubs
Chicago Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said last week that he likes his everyday lineup and thinks his team is graced with players who play hard. But he said there are serious questions about his pitching, particularly his bullpen.
In the eighth and ninth innings, Riggleman will have soft-throwing Bob Patterson and Doug Jones. "I think we'd like to get one more guy, another veteran who can help us there in the late innings," Riggleman said. He said he's considering a third base platoon of Dave Magadan and Orioles castoff Leo Gomez, who signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs.
* Ken Griffey Sr. played a major role in persuading his son to sign a contract extension to stay in Seattle. Griffey Sr. came up in the Cincinnati organization, and after being traded to the Yankees, chose to stay in New York rather than re-sign with the Reds.
"It was a mistake," Senior said. "I was miserable." He advised his son that he shouldn't take for granted the happiness he had achieved playing in Seattle.
* The estimated recovery time for some injured pitchers: Colorado Rockies right-hander Bret Saberhagen said he can rehabilitate a slightly torn rotator cuff by May, which means you might see him in July; Cincinnati ace Jose Rijo (reconstructed elbow) could be back in July, GM Jim Bowden said, or perhaps not at all; and St. Louis left-hander Danny Jackson, out with torn ligaments and tendons in his right ankle, is aiming to get back in the rotation by early July.
Bowden privately may be hoping Rijo sits out the whole year. If Rijo misses the entire season, his $5.5 million salary will be paid with insurance.
* Damon Buford grew frustrated by his lack of opportunity when Johnny Oates managed the Orioles. Now Buford must break into Oates' lineup again, after being traded last week from the New York Mets to the Texas Rangers.
* Under Gillick, the Orioles have added one extra pro scout and one amateur scout.
* St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith is donating $1 million to help construct a baseball program at his former college, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
Wrong about Boras
I mentioned to a couple of other writers early last fall that if I were a player, I wouldn't want Scott Boras to be my agent this off-season. It appeared the owners were prepared to dig in and spend conservatively, and Boras, almost as a rule, holds out for top dollar.
Well, I was dead wrong: Somehow, Boras found a healthy financial vein for each of his clients, even when at times it appeared the bidders were bidding against themselves.
Kevin Brown signed a three-year, $12.9 million deal with Florida. Kenny Rogers got a four-year, $19 million contract from the Yankees. Catcher Benito Santiago signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract with Philadelphia. Andy Benes got two years and $8.1 million from the Cardinals. Ben McDonald got two years, $6 million from Milwaukee. Tim Belcher signed a one-year, $975,000 contract with Kansas City.
In each case, Boras bartered for substantially more money than conventional wisdom allowed. Either he's very smart (very possible) or the folks he's negotiating with aren't always paying attention to market value (also very possible).
K? "They talked [about Slocumb]," Gillick said. "We listened."
What's with the Phillies?
Baseball executives are attempting to figure out the logic behind the Phillies' moves last week. First, they traded Slocumb and two prospects -- one of whom they liked a lot -- to the Red Sox for reliever Ken Ryan and two outfielders, Lee Tinsley and Glenn Murray. Then they signed Santiago, and announced that catcher Darren Daulton will move to left field.
Now they've got about 800 zillion outfielders (there's no apparent position open for Tinsley, theoretically the centerpiece of the deal for the Phillies), a depleted bullpen and no significant reduction in payroll. What did they really achieve?
* Kevin Mitchell's agent made an interesting (read: absurd) proposal to the Reds -- pay Mitchell the minimum wage in base salary, $109,000, and then $10,000 per plate appearance.
If Mitchell accumulated 500 plate appearances, he would earn $5 million. Cincinnati GM Bowden isn't receptive to the idea.
* Bowden projects Curtis Goodwin to be his everyday center fielder, batting second. If that's so, then Goodwin will have to show a heck of a lot more patience at the plate than he did with the Orioles in 1995.
* Livan Hernandez, the 20-year-old Cuban defector who signed with the Marlins, put on more than 30 pounds of unwanted weight this off-season, prompting the team to place him on a nutrition program.
The Orioles' nonroster invitees to spring training: outfielders Greg Blosser, Jarvis Brown and Joe Hall; pitchers Rocky Coppinger, Jim Dedrick, Don Florence, Mike Hartley, Keith Shepherd and Jimmy Myers; catchers Jim Foster, Kris Gresham and Rod Robertson; and infielder Bill Ripken.
Blosser, a left-handed power hitter, is a sleeper. The left-handed Florence is a candidate because Rhodes won't be ready to start the year. The hard-throwing Shepherd, a right-hander, becomes a factor if Armando Benitez starts the year in Triple A.
Tops in Sports
Remember the Tops in Sports banquet Thursday at the Towson Center. Among the guests will be Gillick and Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. Call (410) 321-5772 for more
By the numbers
* During the past five years, Roberto Alomar has 20 homers in May and no more than nine in any other month.
* Chris Hoiles has more homers at Camden Yards (44) than any other player. Dean Palmer of Texas has the most homers of any opponent at Oriole Park (seven).
* In 1997, AL pitchers probably will have to bat in NL cities. The lifetime batting averages of the Orioles pitchers (those who have averages): Jesse Orosco .169 (10-for-59), Randy Myers .186 (11-for-59), David Wells .143 (4-for-28), Roger McDowell .222 (16-for-72) and Kent Mercker .068 (8-for-117).
* During the past five years, Mike Devereaux has hit 50 points higher (.299) vs. lefties than righties (.249).
* Orioles general manager Pat Gillick isn't going crazy attempting to bolster his team's bench, and one reason is that the Orioles are loaded with position players who play every day, beginning with Cal Ripken (2,153 straight games). Brady Anderson has missed two games in two years, Roberto Alomar missed a total of 25 games during the 1991-1994 seasons, Bobby Bonilla has played at least 157 games four times during his career, and Rafael Palmeiro has missed 34 games during the past eight seasons.