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Orioles Will Forgo Free-Agent Bidding for Player Development

December 17, 1989|RICHARD JUSTICE | WASHINGTON POST

When the Milwaukee Brewers signed Dave Parker, the Boston Red Sox signed Jeff Reardon and the Detroit Tigers hauled in Lloyd Moseby and Tony Phillips last week in Nashville, the men who run the Baltimore Orioles were tucked safely away in their hotel suites.

Likewise, they didn't stop by the news conferences that announced Kansas City's signing of Storm Davis or Minnesota's signing of Kent Hrbek. They did not blink when the Royals added Mark Davis this week.

Indeed while the money and transactions swirled through major-league baseball these last few weeks, the Orioles stayed quietly on the sidelines. From the very moment their remarkable 1989 season ended, these Orioles have tried to remind their fans a couple of thousand times that their long-awaited rebuilding -- the one that saw them dispatch Eddie Murray, Terry Kennedy, Fred Lynn and Mike Boddicker in 1988 -- was not over.

"It's a time for reasonable expectations," team president Larry Lucchino said.

While the Orioles would love to believe last season's 87 victories were the real thing, they also knew this winter would again be more about players disposed of than players acquired. That's why their most important transactions still concern players going out the door rather than players coming in.

So far Dave Schmidt, Jim Traber and Mark Thurmond have been let go, and Larry Sheets probably will be next.

What deals they do hope to make involve young players they believe are on the upswing of their careers. For now the Orioles aren't interested in Gary Carter, Jim Rice or Doyle Alexander. But Hal Morris, Jay Buhner and Norm Charlton are very intriguing to them.

That's why the one transaction that did bother them was announced Tuesday when the Yankees sent International League batting champion Morris to Cincinnati for pitcher Tim Leary. The Orioles had coveted Morris and had spent some of their time at the winter meetings trying to get him. That the Yankees traded him for Leary was doubly bad, because it means that Charlton, a young Reds left-hander, almost surely is off the trading block.

So while they may continue to pursue several young left-handed pitchers and a lot of young hitters, they may also be going to spring training with a team that has been changed from within.

That should mean everyday jobs for Steve Finley and Mike Devereaux and spots in the rotation for Ben McDonald, Eric Bell and Pete Harnisch. It'll mean a spring tryout at second fase for young shortstop Juan Bell.

"If we aren't able to add a player from outside, we have to make sure everyone we have continues to work hard," farm director Doug Melvin said. "I see some of our young players improving. (Randy) Milligan lost some at-bats because Traber was here, and he should get better. We didn't realize Devereaux was an everyday player until late in the year, and Finley will continue to improve. It would be nice to have a veteran, but I can see the offense getting better."

Changes from within could also mean that for the second straight season the Orioles would be the youngest team in baseball. At the moment their nine starters average 3.6 years of experience per man. They would average 27 years per man, with only shortstop Cal Ripken, 31, and outfielder Phil Bradley, 30, having celebrated their 30th birthdays.

The starting-pitching rotation may be even younger than last year's, with a total of 5.5 years experience as starters.

But will it all translete to another 87 victories in 1990? And if it doesn't, what will that mean, especially to the fans who may think the post-Eddie Murray era is farther along than it actually is?

"We want fans to remember we're still in a rebuilding mode," Lucchino said. "We don't want people to think we're so solid that one player would push us over the top. We're optimistic and happy with our season, but much work remains. As I said it's a time for reasonable expectations."

That the Orioles chose not to participate in the bidding for Mark Langston or Mark Davis is an indication they don't believe they're just one million-dollar free agent away from being a championship team. And even if they had thought Langston was the guy to push them over the top, they still might not have made a pitch for him.

Those kinds of philosophical decisions probably will be made by new owner Eli Jacobs, although it seems clear that whatever Lucchino and Manager Frank Robinson want, they can have.

What Lucchino and Robinson seem to want these days is an organization modeled after the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets, two very rich teams that believe a solid farm system is better than bidding for free agents.

The Mets have almost completely turned over their everyday lineup since winning the 1986 World Series, but they've done it by trading their highly touted young prospects for Kevin McReynolds, Frank Viola and Juan Samuel.

Granted the Mets did have the$game's highest payroll in 1989, but that money went to their own players and not in bidding for others.

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