Orioles pack doubts, too; Though roster set, O's take some questions south with 11 new faces

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the Orioles hoped for last February to represent a seamless extension of the previous summer, they intend for Friday's official opening of spring training to represent an abrupt break from a lost season.

When pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale Stadium, 144 days will have passed since a 79-83 season closed. Frank Wren's October naming as general manager also was meant to signal an end to organizational factionalism. A subsequent roster renovation was intended to restore purpose to a team lampooned as too old, too indifferent and divided.

Of the graybeard group that began last season, 11 are gone, nearly half the roster. Likewise, a laborious front-office makeover replaced general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone -- both of whom resigned -- along with director of player development Syd Thrift and scouting director Gary Nickels.

Handicapped by his late appointment as well as disappointing pursuits of free agents such as pitcher Todd Stottlemyre, outfielder Brian Jordan and incumbent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, Wren improvised by importing a intriguing, potentially volatile mix of veterans.

Albert Belle, Will Clark, Mike Timlin, Delino DeShields and holdover B. J. Surhoff cost the club more than $118 million. There may have been a clubhouse face-lift, but the look remains a decidedly veteran one.

Like last year, relatively few questions remain about the roster's composition heading into spring training. And unlike last spring, there is no crush of 13 pending free agents to blur the season's focus.

Majority owner Peter Angelos rejected the talk-show drumbeat of rebuilding from within. Instead, he will maintain a projected $78 million payroll.

Thanks to greater emphasis on recent amateur drafts, the player development pipeline might finally be primed; however, few believe prospects such as Calvin Pickering, Jerry Hairston, Ryan Minor, Chris Fussell and Danny Clyburn are ready to contribute this season.

So what are some of the questions taking the trip south?

1. What positions are up for grabs?

Barring injuries, there are no vacancies. Even reserve infielder Jeff Reboulet is signed through 2000. Chris Hoiles and Harold Baines form the only likely platoon at designated hitter. Mike Fetters arrives at camp a nonroster pitcher, but is virtually assured a role in middle relief. If anyone is vulnerable in the bullpen, it is left-hander Doug Johns. Scott Kamieniecki, coming off disk surgery, swears he'll arrive ready to pitch three innings and believes himself able to hold onto the role of No. 4 starter.

2. Is Albert Belle in right field for real?

Manager Ray Miller assured Surhoff he would remain in left field if he returned. Belle, a left fielder his entire career, offered no complaints to a defensive switch. Shadowed by the scoreboard, right field at Camden Yards is much more claustrophobic than left. It remains to be seen whether Belle can avoid the ghosts of Geronimo Berroa and Willie Greene.

3. Has Wren created a bullpen or merely bull?

Wren has imported Ricky Bones and Fetters to fill the long-relief role. Though Timlin, Heathcliff Slocumb, Jesse Orosco and Fetters possess 392 career saves, short relief remains a delicate proposition. Timlin, signed to a four-year, $16 million contract, mishandled the role in Seattle. If he proves himself worthy, the Orioles possess a potential late-inning whipsaw thanks to left-handers Orosco and Arthur Rhodes. If Timlin falters, nostalgia builds for Armando Benitez. Miller desperately hopes to avoid another musical chairs arrangement.

4. Speaking of Miller, how secure is he?

Angelos promised Miller would begin the season as manager, but also assured Wren he would hold sway over whether the club assumes the manager's option for 2000. Miller could point to a decimated pitching staff as responsible for last season's debacle. However, a repeat of last season's 38-50 first half will not be tolerated.

5. What does the batting order look like?

The club virtually anointed DeShields its new leadoff hitter last December, leaving Brady Anderson a possibility to bat second. Miller has said Belle will hit third ahead of Clark, who has averaged 15 home runs the past seven seasons. Against right-handed pitching, five of the Orioles' first six hitters might be left-handed. Against left-handers, Miller has pondered moving Mike Bordick to second in the order, dropping Belle to cleanup and Anderson to the bottom half.

6. Is the Jurassic Age over at Oriole Park?

Not exactly. Catcher Charles Johnson (27) is the only starting position player under 30. On Opening Day, the team's average age likely will be 33 years, 2 months, only a marginal drop from last year's 33 years, 8 months. The roster includes three players (Johnson, Sidney Ponson, Rhodes) under 30 compared with two (Orosco, Baines) over 40 and four (Anderson, Rich Amaral, Cal Ripken, Clark) 35 or over. By season's end, the number of over-35 players will reach nine. No World Series winner has had an average age of more than 31 years, 11 months.

7. The Orioles' off-season priority was to acquire another starting pitcher. What gives? How about a left-hander?

Wren couldn't catch up in the bidding for free agents Randy Johnson and Stottlemyre and dared not pursue the $105 million man, Kevin Brown, once bidding reached the Twilight Zone. A deal for Joey Hamilton collapsed when the Padres insisted upon Ponson. Spring training could offer another opportunity. Oakland's Kenny Rogers and Arizona's Brian Anderson could prove a left-handed presence. Whoever trades for Rogers, a free agent after this season, is obligated to pay only $2.5 million of his salary. With former Kansas City Royals pitching coach Bruce Kison on board, Jose Rosado may also become a target. Wren is comfortable packaging prospects such as Willis Otanez, Clyburn, Fussell and possibly Minor.

8. With Charles Johnson here, what happens to Lenny Webster and Chris Hoiles?

According to Miller, Webster might continue to serve as Scott Erickson's personal catcher, though Wren chuckled at the thought two months ago. The battered Hoiles (shoulder, knee, lower back) doesn't want to catch and will be asked to do so in emergency situations only.

9. How much does Cal Ripken have left?

At 38, Ripken no longer has to face predictable questions about his consecutive-games streak. He is coming off the least productive full season of his career, which included a slugging percentage (.389) lower than every other starter. However, some within the organization believe strategic days off (say 12 to 15) and occasional DH duty might pump his numbers beyond 14 homers and 61 RBIs. Ripken batted .308 his last 59 games in 1998. Last season, he also endured three months of fewer than 10 RBIs -- that happened in only five months during the remainder of his remarkable streak. Though the Orioles were willing to give third base to free agent Robin Ventura, Ripken (eight errors) remains among the league's better defensive third basemen.

10. What could go right that went wrong last season?

Mike Mussina, Erickson and No. 3 starter Juan Guzman should combine for more than 39 wins. Able to stay healthy, Anderson could enjoy a 30-30 season. Johnson will throw out more than 22 percent of opposing base stealers. With fewer injuries to the starting rotation, Miller can establish a pattern for his bullpen. A decent April can launch Belle toward a 70-homer season. There might be an August without a divisive clubhouse meeting such as the one that short-circuited last summer's postseason push. The Orioles do better than a combined 8-20 vs. Montreal, Florida, Tampa Bay and Chicago.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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