O's mandate to win now, forget future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The chances of the Orioles making a trade in the next 10 days?

"I would be optimistic," general manager Pat Gillick said yesterday.

Is a pitcher or hitter coming to town?

"Couldn't tell you," Gillick said.

Either way, it means bye-bye to more minor-league prospects, a commodity in which the club already is sorely lacking.

Is that a good idea?

Ordinarily not, seeing as the Orioles are looking at a serious downturn in a few years unless they start bolstering their minor-league system.

But at this point in this season, having already invested $55 million in salaries to build one of the game's best teams, they would be foolish to cut any corners for the sake of bettering their future.

Teams usually try to strike a balance between playing for the present and playing for the future, but who cares about the future when you have the best record in the American League and the World Series is a serious possibility?

That may sound careless, but seasons that hold such high-end promise are rare for any franchise, and a team is shortchanging itself and its players and fans if it doesn't do all that it can to win at such moments.

If the Orioles can improve their chances of winning in 1997 by giving up several of their few valuable prospects -- and they can -- they should just do it.

That's easy to say now, of course; the spoils of such deals always are instantly realized, the damages always delayed by several years. Who isn't lured by such a buy-now, pay-later business?

But it also makes baseball sense for the Orioles to play to win now, regardless of the consequences.

For starters, you know the Yankees are going to make a major move. They always do.

The Orioles don't have to match their rivals just for the sake of doing so, but they do have to make sure they don't get passed.

Because they're close -- as close as they have been to the World Series in 14 years.

Can't get any closer, really.

They weren't nearly this close two years ago when they gave up prospects for Bobby Bonilla; they were one game under .500, a mediocrity going nowhere.

The trade hasn't hurt because Alex Ochoa has failed to live up to billing with the Mets, but still, it was ridiculous for the Orioles to give up so much in a season with such little upside potential.

This year is the opposite of that, a season all but overflowing with upside potential.

Despite their recent, alarming slide, the Orioles already have swept a three-game series from the Braves in Atlanta and won four straight over the Yankees.

Their 8-14 record since late June is enough to make you wonder how they did it, but they surely did.

And that means that, recent losses notwithstanding, the Orioles belong with the game's best.

For a team that hasn't won a division, pennant or World Series in 14 years, yet plays to a full house every night, that's a mandate to try to win now.

Remember, they won't always be this close; Randy Myers and Brady Anderson are in the last years of their contracts, and Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and Jimmy Key all have one year left. Some hard decisions will have to be made after the 1998 season, which means, basically, that the club has this and next year to get it done.

Sure, the club probably will always spend for free agents and remain competitive as long as Peter Angelos is the owner, but that doesn't mean it'll replicate the current club's strong blend of pitching, hitting and defense.

Not that the Orioles don't need help, because they do. The bottom of their rotation isn't dependable. Their offense needs a boost.

Gillick and manager Davey Johnson hedged yesterday on which hole the Orioles would seek to fill.

"Ask the manager," Gillick said, smiling at Johnson across the room.

"I'm not getting into that one," Johnson said.

It would appear that they themselves aren't quite sure what to do.

A lot might happen in the next 10 days, particularly if disappointing teams such as the Rangers start unloading potential free agents. The Rangers could dangle starters Ken Hill and Bobby Witt and maybe even All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

"It kind of depends on who is out there," Johnson said.

Another quality starting pitcher probably would help the Orioles the most down the stretch and into the playoffs if you assume that the offense can't possibly continue to slump so badly.

Either way, it appears the Orioles are going to do something, and that's fine.

Yes, they'll pay down the line for giving up prospects, just as they already pay every day for having given up prospects for years.

That they had to call up a nonfactor such as Tim Laker when Chris Hoiles went down is just the latest example of how a weak farm system hurts them.

But this isn't the time to worry about that.

For the Orioles, this is the time to try to win.

Pub Date: 7/22/97

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