Torre expects Orioles to be improved in '99; Baltimore narrowed gap with off-season moves, Yankees manager says

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TAMPA, Fla. -- New York Yankees manager Joe Torre isn't ready to concede the American League East title just yet, but he thinks that the Orioles did narrow the talent gap between the two clubs with their off-season rebuilding program.

"I think they helped themselves," Torre said. "I know they lost the right side of their infield, but Will Clark will add a lot. He'll keep them sharp. And Albert Belle will hit about 80 home runs in that ballpark, which should make up for the loss of [Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar]."

Torre knows that the Orioles fell victim to a rash of early season pitching injuries that made it impossible to compete with the streaking Yankees. He also knows that the Yankees were very fortunate to get through the season without a serious pitching shortfall.

"We were lucky last year," he said. "We stayed healthy. When we lost a pitcher for a start or two, El Duque [Orlando Hernandez] came on the scene."

The Orioles had three starting pitchers go on the disabled list for extended periods early in the season. By the time manager Ray Miller had reassembled his pitching staff, the Yankees were over the horizon.

The Yankees can't bank on that happening again, but they have so much pitching depth that it might not matter. They had six pitchers win in double figures last year. The Orioles still aren't sure if they'll have five productive starters, though Scott Kamieniecki appears to have recovered nicely from neck surgery.

In Torre's opinion, the key off-season move for the Orioles was the deal that put four-time Gold Glove winner Charles Johnson behind the plate. That fixed a long-standing defensive shortcoming and should have a positive effect on the entire pitching staff.

"I think Charles Johnson is going to make a difference," Torre said. "Maybe it's just because I was a catcher, but I think pitchers need to have that confidence that the guy is going to do the job. I know that when we got [Joe] Girardi a couple of years ago it had an effect on everyone."

Yankees at a glance

1998 record: 114-48

1998 finish: First

Team batting avg.: .288

Team ERA: 3.82

Spring schedule vs. Orioles: No meetings

Regular schedule vs. Orioles: April 13-15, July 2-5 at New York; June 25-27, September 28-30 at Camden Yards. Pub Date: 3/08/99

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