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Even with flurry of moves, O's may be left out in cold


The Orioles yesterday signed one of the game's premier sluggers and traded for the catcher they desperately need. But such is the state of their deterioration, they're still looking at non-contention, even if they re-sign B.J. Surhoff.

Rafael Palmeiro signed yesterday with Texas for less money than the Orioles offered, and Robin Ventura reportedly is on the verge of joining the New York Mets, ensuring that Cal Ripken will remain at third base next season.

Surhoff's leverage in Baltimore is increasing by the minute, and maybe now he will get the guaranteed fourth year he is seeking. Or maybe he will take a hard look at the '99 Orioles and decide that his chances of contending are better elsewhere.

Albert Belle, Charles Johnson and Mike Timlin are in. Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Eric Davis, Armando Benitez and Alan Mills are out. If Surhoff follows, the Orioles will have lost their three leading run producers from last season. And even if he stays, the Orioles would be left with a below-average lineup.

In fairness, the Orioles remain a work in progress. But to this point, their offense lacks speed and a true power threat besides Belle. And their defense might be subpar, even with Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove winner, at catcher.

Who's going to replace Palmeiro as the No. 3 hitter? Probably Surhoff if he re-signs, with Harold Baines possibly batting behind Belle. Surhoff batted mostly sixth in '96 and '97. Baines is about to turn 40. Lots of luck, Albert.

Who's going to replace Palmeiro at first base? Chris Hoiles could become part of a platoon with Willie Greene; Surhoff is another option. General manager Frank Wren said that he expects Calvin Pickering to play at Triple-A next season.

And what about second? Wren said that the Orioles have made an offer to free agent Delino DeShields, the third choice in this year's free-agent class behind Roberto Alomar and Jose Offerman. DeShields would be a decent addition, a reasonable bridge to Jerry Hairston, but nothing more.

A few days back, the Orioles fantasized about Ventura at third, Ripken at first and Palmeiro in right -- a ridiculous notion that would have left them with one of the worst outfield defenses in the majors. Well, they struck out on Ventura and Palmeiro. And even if Palmeiro double-crossed them, it's their own fault for allowing him to become a free agent.

Ventura batted fifth behind Belle with the Chicago White Sox, and the Orioles envisioned him providing the same protection in Baltimore. As of now, DeShields and Brady Anderson likely would hit 1-2; Ripken, Hoiles or Greene, Johnson and Mike Bordick would round out a lineup that, except for Belle, would scare no one.

Defensively, an outfield of Belle in left, Anderson in center and Surhoff in right would be average at best -- assuming, of course, that Surhoff re-signs. The infield could be below average at first and second, and Ripken will be turning 39 at third. Can Johnson make up for all that?

The answer is no, but give Wren credit -- Johnson-for-Armando Benitez appears to be a terrific deal. Johnson, 27, at least gives the Orioles a position player under 30. Anderson will be 35 next Opening Day; Hoiles, 34; Bordick, 33; Belle, 32. Surhoff will be 34; DeShields, 30.

Johnson will improve the pitching staff, shutting down base stealers, saving runs in close games. Benitez will be a right-handed setup man for John Franco with the Mets, but that's a role he probably would not have accepted in Baltimore.

The Orioles struggled to throw out base stealers with Hoiles and Lenny Webster. The question now is whether Johnson will hit. He batted .218 last season with Florida and Los Angeles, albeit with 19 homers and 58 RBIs.

Wren cited valid excuses for Johnson's offensive decline. The dismantling of the Marlins had an unsettling effect on the players who remained. Then Johnson had to adapt to the Mike Piazza trade that sent him to the Dodgers on May 15.

Johnson had lived virtually his entire life in Miami. His wife, Rhonda, was pregnant with their first child. He simply never adjusted to the change in coasts, and his batting average plummeted.

Wren envisions Johnson as a .250 to .270 hitter and maybe a 25-homer man at Camden Yards. But the only time Johnson hit well was in the second half of the Marlins' world championship season in '97. The Orioles got him for his defense. With this lineup, that might not be enough.

Brian Jordan and Todd Stottlemyre didn't want to play here. Rafael Palmeiro and Robin Ventura didn't want to play here. Most teams could rejoice on a day they added two All-Star caliber players. The Orioles were down to crossing their fingers on B.J. Surhoff.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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