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Chances of O's upgrade downright poor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The desire for an upgrade is natural. The Orioles came close to playing in the World Series, and if not for a 12-year-old kid sticking out his glove in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series and one pivotal inning in Game 3, the Braves might've been playing the Orioles, not the Yankees.

The Orioles want to upgrade their pitching staff, and they want to improve the defense, possibly by moving Cal Ripken to third base and getting a shortstop. Those are worthy goals -- but goals that will be difficult to attain in this off-season.

The Orioles are eyeing right-handed pitcher Alex Fernandez, who will be a free agent as soon as hell freezes over and the new labor agreement is announced. Fernandez would be a perfect fit: He will be 28 years old next August, is durable and talented, going 16-10 for the Chicago White Sox in 1996.

But he is represented by agent Scott Boras, who always demands and usually gets top dollar for his clients. He got a three-year deal for Kevin Brown last off-season after Brown had a mediocre year for the Orioles. Boras got a four-year, $20 million deal from the Yankees for left-hander Kenny Rogers.

Fernandez is worth more than either pitcher on the open market, and if the Orioles want Fernandez, they may have to offer a five-year deal for something in the range of $25 million. For general manager Pat Gillick, who does not like long-term deals for pitchers, that would be an extraordinary commitment. And don't underestimate the bad feelings left over from a prior Boras client, pitcher Ben McDonald, who won three games, made $4.5 million and temporarily refused to pitch out of the bullpen in his final month with the team.

The Orioles probably will bid on Atlanta right-hander John Smoltz, but the only thing they may accomplish in this is to make more money for Smoltz and his agent. Smoltz has a home in the Atlanta area, he's comfortable in the National League, he has close friends on the Braves, and a switch to the AL seems unlikely.

Then there's the question of cost. If Fernandez is worth $20 million or more, what is Smoltz worth, considering he won't be 30 until May and is coming off one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in the past 20 years?

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jaime Navarro could become a free agent, if he follows through on his threat and declines to accept a '97 option in his contract for $3.8 million. He went 15-12 and is a quality pitcher, one the Orioles bid on last off-season. But with such a poor class of free-agent pitchers available, Navarro could be under great demand, and again, the Orioles will have to ask themselves this philosophical question: Do they want to pay an above-average pitcher extraordinary money, when ace Mike Mussina possesses the highest lifetime winning percentage in the majors and is ready to negotiate a long-term deal?

The Orioles have expressed interest in trading for left-hander Jeff Fassero, who went 15-11 for the Montreal Expos last year and is eligible for arbitration. But the Expos are telling teams they want three good prospects, and quite simply, the Orioles don't have ++ many prospects to offer.

There are no easy solutions, even if they decide to keep their rotation in place and attempt to re-sign left-hander David Wells. Cleveland, which tried to make a deal for Wells in July, is expected to offer him a lucrative long-term deal, perhaps for as many as three years. Wells liked pitching for the Orioles, but said a number of times he couldn't stand pitching at Camden Yards, a homer haven. Gillick has talked with Wells' agent about bringing the left-hander back, but all things being equal -- or unequal, if the Orioles don't match the Cleveland bid -- would Wells want to come back?

It could be the Orioles will have to sign a journeyman or two, pitchers along the lines of a Bob Tewksbury, and hope that new pitching coach Ray Miller can help Scott Erickson, Mussina, Rocky Coppinger and Jimmy Haynes.

There are more options among the shortstops, but again, no easy solutions. Mike Bordick, the AL's best defensive shortstop, will become a free agent as soon as the players and owners achieve the next labor agreement. There is a downside, though -- Bordick hit .240 last year, and stole five bases. He would add little to the Orioles' attack.

The Colorado Rockies are dangling shortstop Walt Weiss, but want pitching or catching in return. The Pirates are shopping Carlos Garcia around, and club sources say the Orioles have talked to Pittsburgh about the All-Star. But Garcia hasn't played shortstop regularly in years, and there would be a period of adjustment. There's Kevin Elster, coming off a career year with Texas; he hit 24 homers and drove in 99 runs, but seemed to tire by season's end.

The Orioles improved their talent base since the last off-season, adding Roberto Alomar and B. J. Surhoff and others. But they still have the same basic problems -- few minor-league prospects to trade, few minor-league prospects ready to push into the majors. And this year, the free-agent talent pool is thin. It could be a long, cold winter for upgrades.

Another setback for Walker

Colorado right fielder Larry Walker, who spent half the season rehabilitating a broken left collarbone, suffered a third-degree separation of his right shoulder Wednesday, during a fishing trip. Walker went out "early in the morning when it was still dark and damp. We were going down a hill with big rocks. I slipped and fell on my shoulder. My grandfather told me to get back to Denver and lock myself in a room with padded walls and a padded cell until 1996 is over."

The Rangers are ready to discuss a long-term contract with catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

White Sox general manager Ron Schueler called a handful of veterans on the team, from Frank Thomas to Harold Baines, to tell them he'd gotten the OK from club chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to pursue any player Schueler thinks will help the White Sox win the Central Division.

Contract time for Belle

Cleveland slugger Albert Belle has decided to forgo plans to be part of the major-league all-star team scheduled to play in Japan following the World Series, staving off any immediate possibility of World War III. Belle is a free agent, and the Indians want him to stay and will give him what they consider to be a fair offer. But don't expect the Indians to overpay for Belle -- they've grown tired of dealing with the daily conflicts he creates, and could sign two or three quality players with the money Belle is demanding.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are waiting for shortstop Greg Gagne to decide whether he's going to retire or return for 1997. Gagne, who turns 35 next month, could develop into an option for the Orioles if he decides to leave Los Angeles.

Outfielder Willie McGee and third baseman Gary Gaetti have indicated they'd like to return to the Cardinals next year. Catcher Tom Pagnozzi says he probably has played his last game with St. Louis. The Orioles, you may recall, had interest in trading for Pagnozzi in May.

O's may eye Plunk

Cleveland right-hander Eric Plunk has told friends he'd like to pitch for a California team. If he can't find work there, the Orioles might be interested.

Minnesota intends to pursue a couple of pitchers, as well as a catcher and a right fielder. The Twins are hoping Terry Steinbach, a Minnesota native, comes home and signs as a free agent, as Paul Molitor did.

Jays have A. Jones' cousin

The Orioles bid on a 16-year-old left-hander named Diegomar Markwell this summer, but lost out to the Toronto Blue Jays, who signed him for a $705,000 bonus. Markwell is from Curacao, the homeland of Braves phenom Andruw Jones. Markwell and Jones are first cousins.

The Montreal Expos signed first baseman Paval Budsky, a 6-foot-6, 215-pounder from the Czech Republic. He failed in tryouts with other teams.

Blue Jays coach Gene Tenace homered in his first two World Series at-bats in 1972, a record that Jones tied. "I had it a few years, but I figured it would just be a matter of time," Tenace said. "Hey, if Cal Ripken can break Lou Gehrig's record, anything can happen. This Jones kid is awesome, very impressive."

Pub Date: 10/27/96

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