Some March predictions wilt while others thrive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The All-Star break is a time to look back, take stock in first-half performance and look ahead. It's a time to confess, to compare preseason predictions with what has actually taken place on the field.

What was written here in March: The Orioles would win the American League East, barely fighting off Boston.

Reality: The Orioles still have a shot. The Red Sox are to the AL East race what the Libertarian Party is to the presidential elections.

The excuse: Heck, Boston general manager Dan Duquette misjudged the team, too.

What was written here in March: The Mets' Paul Wilson would be National League Rookie of the Year.

Reality: Two words -- no chance.

The excuse: Never again will I rely on hype published in the New York Post.

What was written here in March: The NL Central would line up this way -- Astros, Cardinals, Reds, Cubs and Pirates.

Reality: Right on the money -- Astros, Cardinals, Reds, Cubs and Pirates.

The explanation: Pure luck.

What was written here in March: The Yankees' Derek Jeter would be AL Rookie of the Year.

Reality: He's going to win it.

The explanation: Except for Chicago's James Baldwin, there are no other viable candidates.

What was written here in March: Jose Canseco will be the best designated hitter in the division, Bobby Bonilla the second-best.

Reality: Bonilla isn't a designated hitter. Period. Just ask him.

The excuse: We'll let Orioles manager Davey Johnson and Bonilla handle that one.

What was written here in March: The Detroit Tigers would have the worst starting pitching and worst bullpen in the AL East.

Reality: The Tigers have the worst starting pitching and bullpen in history.

The excuse: It's pretty darned hard to predict record-breaking performances.

What was written here in March: Greg Maddux would win the NL Cy Young Award, and Tom Glavine would finish second.

Reality: John Smoltz is the second coming of Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner.

The excuse: You can't pick every Braves pitcher.

What was written here in March: It will be hard for Manny Alexander to get playing time.

Reality: Check the end of the Orioles' bench. He never plays.

The explanation: Really went out on a limb there, eh? Alexander plays behind a guy who hasn't missed a game in more than 14 years.

What was written here in March: The predicted order of finish in the AL Central -- Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City, Milwaukee.

Reality: Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Kansas City.

The excuse: Hey, who would ever guess an NL team, the Royals, would be allowed into the AL?

What was written here in March: Mike Mussina would win the AL Cy Young Award, ahead of Randy Johnson and Jack McDowell.

Reality: Mussina is having a solid year, with 11 wins, but he's behind front-runners Charles Nagy and Roberto Hernandez.

The excuse: Mussina would win the Cy Young Award -- if you had to pick among Mussina, Johnson and McDowell.

What was written here in March: The Braves, Dodgers and Mariners would win their respective divisions.

Reality: The Braves and Dodgers are in first, Seattle is in second place.

The excuse: Like anyone in Baltimore thought Johnny Oates would manage a division winner.

Big test for Benitez

Tomorrow is an extremely important day for the Orioles: Armando Benitez, he of the 95-mph fastball, will have a magnetic resonance imaging exam on his right elbow in Birmingham, Ala. If the tests indicate that the condition of his elbow -- his injury has been diagnosed as a small tear in a ligament -- hasn't improved, then Benitez faces reconstructive surgery and will be out for a year. Even after he comes back, there's no guarantee he'll be throwing 95 mph anymore. Benitez would become the second Orioles pitching prospect to have reconstructive surgery, the other being Billy Percibal. A third prospect, Brian Sackinsky, may eventually need the procedure as well.

O's building from bottom

It's no secret the Orioles lack top-flight, polished major-league prospects in Triple-A and Double-A, the kind of players who anchor an organization. But slowly, the Orioles are building a base of talent, mostly pitchers, in Single-A and in rookie leagues.

Start with Single-A Frederick, a team that staff members believe possesses five or six legitimate pitching prospects: Chris Fussell, Julio Moreno, Sidney Ponson, Alvie Shepherd (the No. 1 pick in 1995) and Nerio Rodriguez (a converted catcher); and a superior outfield prospect in Wady Almonte. (The Keys also had Eugene Kingsale, a speedster who is out for the year after separating his nonthrowing shoulder.)

In Bluefield, they have outfielder Darrell Dent, pitcher Americo Peguero and catcher Charles Alley. The Orioles are excited about some of the athletes they got in this year's draft, from pitcher Brian Falkenborg (second-round pick, expected to sign at some point) to first baseman/third baseman Ryan Minor, who eventually may pick baseball over basketball. Last week, they signed 16-year-old Australian John Stephens, considered among the best international amateurs, for a bonus of $500,000; he throws in the mid-80s with a graceful delivery. He could be six or seven years away from pitching in Camden Yards, but there is real hope there.

Two weeks ago, Don Buford, the Orioles' assistant farm director, went to the Dominican Republic, watching Latin players recently signed by the organization, most of them ages 16-19. Buford came away with the impression that there may be eight or nine prospects in the group he saw, including two right-handed pitchers -- 16-year-old Francisco Saneaux, 6 feet 3 and 170 pounds, whom Buford clocked at 88 mph on a conservative radar gun, and Jose Marache, 6-4 and 170 pounds, who topped out at 87 mph on the same gun. Said Buford: "Within two years, we should be much stronger. Let me put it this way: I know we're going to be stronger than we are."

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick says it's still premature to evaluate the group. "The report card doesn't come out for three or four years. . . . I think there's some good ingredients," he said.

Smith an All-Star? No

If you believe that players evolve and get stronger and faster with each generation, then St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith is perhaps the best defensive player in baseball history, an original at the most critical position in the game. That being said, it's ridiculous that Atlanta manager Bobby Cox picked Smith for the NL All-Star team, at the urging of NL president Len xTC Coleman. Smith isn't even the starting shortstop for his own team. Sure, it's a nice way of honoring a great player at the end of his career, but Smith has been a regular at All-Star Games in the '90s, voted onto the team by fans, when conventional wisdom has been that his skills began to seriously erode around 1993. He's gotten the free ride to the All-Star Game before.

Smith is invited this year; does that mean that all great players should be invited at the end of their careers? Should Eddie Murray be there? Why wasn't Dave Winfield invited last year? And, as one major-league veteran noted, what about the other Cardinals who might've gone in Smith's place? This might be the only chance for someone like John Mabry, hitting well over .300, to be picked. Think about it: Smith, who plays twice a week now, is an NL All-Star, and Rafael Palmeiro, who hits about two homers a week, isn't on the AL team. Bizarre.

Music out, Sabo in

Nobody ever accused Chris Sabo of having normal tastes. Last week, he put some old music on the clubhouse stereo, the soundtrack from the movie "The Lady is a Tramp," Dean Martin singing "That's Amore." Hearing the tunes in his office, manager Ray Knight sought out Sabo. The music stopped, and Knight returned to his office and changed his lineup -- Jeff Branson out, Sabo in. "I told Sabo if he turned off that music, I'd let him play," said Knight.

California rookie pitcher Ryan Hancock is Generation X's answer to Bob Tewksbury, a soft thrower who throws strikes. The only difference is he's deliberate. Oakland manager Art Howe calls him the Human Rain Delay.

The Dodgers like playing for interim manager Bill Russell, calling his aggressive style "Billy Ball." First baseman Eric Karros said, "The team has made a transition. They've adapted to Billy."

Bonds, good and bad

Barry Bonds displayed both sides of his personality last week. First, reporters went to San Francisco's left fielder for reaction to being voted an All-Star again. "I don't want to talk about it. You guys ask me the same questions and I give you the same answers every year. Just get your 1995 newspapers and write the same stuff for 1996. When I get to be 40 and I'm still in the game and I get in, then you can come ask me." Barry Bonds, the guy reporters love to hate -- and Barry Bonds, the player who loves to win. Bonds went to manager Dusty Baker and suggested that he be dropped to fifth in the lineup, with the idea his presence in that spot would generate better pitches for the two guys ahead of him in the lineup, Mark Carreon and Matt Williams.

Let's get this straight: Albert Belle is investigated and suspended for five games (and then three, and then two) after knocking Milwaukee infielder Fernando Vina on his rear during the course of play. Then Chicago White Sox manager Terry Bevington gets into an off-field, after-hours fight with umpire Rich Garcia -- and no punitive action is taken. Sorry, but we don't understand.

Some first-half awards: Hernandez is the AL Cy Young Award winner, Frank Thomas the Most Valuable Player, Jeter is Rookie of the Year, and the Yankees' Joe Torre is Manager of the Year. In the NL, Smoltz wins the Cy Young Award, Pittsburgh's Jason Kendall is Rookie of the Year, Jeff Bagwell is the Most Valuable Player and Felipe Alou of Montreal is Manager of the Year.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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