At this point, Orioles look like division winner, but . . .


The Orioles are going to win the American League East, but not necessarily with the players on their Opening Day roster. They're going to win because general manager Pat Gillick will find the missing pieces, and manager Davey Johnson will make them fit.

Their management team is the best in the game, and it's possible that by the end of the season, their baseball team will be, too. It's also possible that the Orioles will be a tremendous disappointment, because in this sport, unlike any other, you just never know.

Can they win the division with this group? If everything goes right, without question. But it's rare when everything goes right. Injuries upset the balance. So do subpar performances. Something happens. Something always happens. That's baseball.

The best teams are either deep enough to overcome the loss of a major contributor (Seattle won the AL West last season despite losing Ken Griffey) or are managed shrewdly enough to adjust on the run (the New York Yankees earned the wild card after replacing Jimmy Key with David Cone).

Good as the Atlanta Braves were, they still needed Mike Devereaux and Luis Polonia for the stretch drive. Boston added only Mike Stanton, but the Red Sox were an aberration, a grown-up version of the 1989 Orioles, for whom nothing could go wrong.

The Orioles had more injuries than most last season -- Kevin Brown, Ben McDonald, Jeffrey Hammonds, Alan Mills. But they were so inherently flawed, they could not win even after acquiring Bobby Bonilla. They had holes at second base, third base, center field and in the bullpen. This team does not.

This team does, however, have questions -- in the starting rotation, in the bullpen, at catcher, third base, even the outfield. It would be shocking if one of those questions didn't become urgent, and if Gillick, the GM who made midseason trades for Cone and Rickey Henderson in Toronto, didn't address it.

Here's what can go wrong:

The rotation. Mike Mussina strained a stomach muscle this spring; David Wells had a scare with a rapid heartbeat. Those incidents merely illustrate the fragility of a pitching staff. Mussina and Wells are the Orioles' top two starters.

But it goes beyond that. Wells has never been a No. 2 starter for a championship club. Kent Mercker has never pitched every fifth day. Jimmy Haynes has never started pressure games at this level. Scott Erickson had a magnificent spring and looks poised to win 15 to 18 games. But one injury could change everything.

And no, the solution would not be Rocky Coppinger.

The bullpen. The '86 Mets were great, but a decade later? Randy Myers is 33, Jesse Orosco 38, Roger McDowell 35. Their ages alone mean little -- Orosco is coming off a terrific season, and so is McDowell. But how much does Myers have left on his fastball? How much do the other two have left, period?

The other three spots belong to unproven young pitchers -- Armando Benitez, Arthur Rhodes, Jimmy Myers. One of Johnson's strengths is the way he handles a bullpen, but it's difficult to imagine that he won't need another arm before season's end. The return of a healthy Mills would help.

Catcher. Maybe Chris Hoiles can throw well enough, maybe he can't. The Orioles are about to find out. The condition of his shoulder could affect the entire lineup. Johnson will need to use Bonilla in the field if Hoiles must be his designated hitter, weakening the club's defense, and reducing others' playing time.

Third base. B. J. Surhoff will try his best, and it should be good enough. Johnson has three utility infielders as late-inning possibilities, and Bill Ripken is the best of them. Surhoff, however, gives the lineup another professional hitter, and he will be a valuable player for this team.

The outfield. Or, more to the point, the outfield defense. Brady Anderson is good in center, but better in left. Hammonds and Tony Tarasco looked shaky in less than ideal conditions this spring. The best alignment is with Devereaux in center and Anderson in left. Balancing the equation will be tricky, especially if it includes Bonilla.

Which brings us back to Johnson.

Half the battle for a manager these days is keeping everyone happy -- a challenge that becomes even more complex with a high-priced, veteran club. Johnson is smart enough to push the right buttons, yet sensitive enough to pick his spots. How can the players argue? Johnson has accomplished more than most of them.

He won as a player with the Orioles, won as a manager in New York and Cincinnati, and now he's expected to win again.

This is a gifted team -- six of the 10 players taking the field tomorrow have been All-Stars in the '90s. But more than anything, it is a team that, after four years of contention, finally seems ready to take the next step.

The Yankees? No longer is Buck Showalter around to shield the players from George Steinbrenner. The Yankees have perhaps the division's deepest rotation and strongest bullpen, but they're an accident waiting to happen. The bottom third of their order: Derek Jeter, Mariano Duncan, Joe Girardi.

The Red Sox? They won the division handily last season, and return with an even more fearsome lineup. Their rotation should be good; their bullpen hinges on the new closer, Heathcliff Slocumb. The Red Sox overachieved last season. Sorry, no team managed by Kevin Kennedy can get lucky twice.

The Orioles aren't perfect, but no longer are they a paper tiger, either. Gillick and Johnson are such an improvement over the previous regime, it's ridiculous. They'll find a way to get the club to the postseason for the first time since '83. After so much frustration, so much disappointment, there is reason to believe.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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