At today's prices, Orioles can't afford weak farm system

The Orioles lost Randy Myers because general manager Pat Gillick did not want to invest $18 million in a 35-year-old closer.

It was an admirable show of restraint, but the Orioles now lack a proven late-inning specialist, and Myers' defection is a sign of things to come.


Not every player is as flexible as Mike Mussina, Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson. Not every player will forfeit free-agent millions to stay in Baltimore.

The contracts of five more important Orioles -- Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, B. J. Surhoff, Scott Erickson and Jimmy Key -- expire after next season.


"If they're all looking for $6 [million] to $7 million, we're not going to be able to keep them all," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said last night.

"That's the bottom line. That's the truth. That's reality. The reality is, the game is in trouble."

True enough, but the Orioles are in trouble, too.

They can't plug in a Jaret Wright when they need a starting pitcher, an Andruw Jones when they need a center fielder, an Edgar Renteria when they need a shortstop.

Such young players save their teams untold millions, but the Orioles' farm system is too weak to balance the payroll, and owner Peter Angelos is too impatient to allow the team's few prospects to develop.

So now, the Orioles are without a closer who converted 45 of 46 save chances last season. And they might have little choice but to open 1998 with Armando Benitez and Arthur Rhodes as their co-closers.

Free agent Rod Beck would be a more suitable replacement for Myers. So might Jose Mesa, whom the Orioles could attempt to re-acquire in a trade.

Beck, however, probably will command a deal close to the three-year, $18 million contract Myers signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.


Mesa is a more affordable one-year option at $1.9 million, but his off-the-field trouble is disturbing, and he might be available only if Beck signs with Cleveland.

That would leave Benitez, whom Ray Miller said in August was a "year away maturity-wise" from becoming a closer.

And Rhodes, whose history of shoulder trouble might prevent him from assuming an increased workload.

"I'm not sure they can do it," Gillick conceded last night. "But if we stay inside, that would be the natural way to go."

At this point, it might be the only way to go.

"We're going to end up with a payroll between $60 and $70 million," Malone said. "What are we going to do, pay $80 million?


"I'm not saying Randy didn't have the right to get what he did. But no one can ever question our desire to win.

"At what point does this end? Eventually, you're going to have 25 guys making $6 million. Then we're looking at a $150 million payroll.

"It sounds funny, but think about it for a minute. We're halfway home."

The problem is, Myers' contract is in line with the deals given Roberto Hernandez (four years, $22.5 million) and John Wetteland (four years, $23 million).

Myers can talk all he wants about the organizational turmoil that drove him out of Baltimore -- the messy Davey Johnson affair gave him that excuse.

The bottom line is, he acted like a typical free-agent mercenary, creating a sense of betrayal among many in the Orioles' organization.


"That's a very uncertain situation," Myers said, referring to the one year left on Gillick's contract, the two-year deal for Miller and the uncertain futures of several players.

But what is so stable about the Blue Jays?

Tim Johnson is a rookie manager whose contract runs the same length as Miller's. And Gord Ash isn't exactly the most secure GM on the planet.

The Orioles offered Myers a two-year, $10.75 million deal with an option year that could have brought the total value to $16.75 million.

Myers wanted the third year guaranteed, that's all.

"It was my call," Gillick said. "I thought $18 million for three years may be a bit heavy. But who knows in this market?"


Who knows indeed?

The market enabled an above-average shortstop named Jay Bell to sign for $34 million over five years. The market is something the Orioles prefer to avoid.

They had the game's second-highest payroll last season, but they generally spend wisely -- almost all of their contracts were at or below market value.

"The market is what we choose to pay," Malone said. "That's the problem with the industry -- new markets are set every day, at a rate that is out of control.

"I can't say any of our players are paid below market value. They're being paid what we believe is the market."

But don't other clubs influence the salary structure?


"If they all want to jump off a cliff, that doesn't mean I have to," Malone said. "Because everyone is doing it, that doesn't make it right. I choose not to accept it."

Malone was just getting started.

"When you have everyone making five or six million dollars, how are the fans going to be able to afford it?" he said. "Unless they want to pay double their ticket prices, where are we going with this?

"Certain clubs will pay certain guys, but they've got only two or three making $6 million. We've got a whole team of 'em. We've got more top-dollar guys than anyone."

If the Orioles sign Anderson, they will have five players earning more than $6 million next season, including deferred payments.

And if they sign free-agent pitcher Willie Blair, they will have at least five more players earning between $3.5 million and $4 million.


Eric Davis will receive another $2.5 million, and free-agent designated hitter Paul Molitor also figures to be in that range.

That's more than $50 million for 12 players, with no Myers.

See why a strong farm system is so important?

"If we're going to go with proven veterans every year, we're going to have to pay more than we want," Malone said. "At some point, you've got to try some different things. You've got to give some young guys opportunities."

Cleveland does it. Atlanta does it. The hated Yankees do it, too.

George Steinbrenner is known as a free spender, but he has never paid a salary higher than David Cone's $6.5 million. The Yankees developed Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. And they've got more young players coming.


The Orioles need to reach that level.

They can't afford every free agent.

They're going to lose players like Randy Myers.

Pub Date: 11/27/97