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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Superstar Free Agents Can't Solve All Orioles' Woes


Mo' better as an Oriole? Slugger Mo Vaughn could hit 60 homers at Camden Yards--but over time, his huge body might betray him.

If Peter Angelos can pay $450 million for the Washington Redskins, then he can afford every big-name free agent available--Mo Vaughn and Bernie Williams, Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown.

But let's not spend the owner's money when it's earmarked for such a worthy cause--a football team that is hated in Baltimore but at least designed its own logo.

Seriously, the Orioles don't figure to sign any of the top four free agents, not when each is expected to cost the equivalent of three $4 million players or two $6 million players.

Exciting as it might be to think about Brown joining the rotation, Williams roaming center field or Vaughn taking aim at the right-field wall, no one can fault Angelos for refusing to sink $12 million into any one player.

For a team with as many holes as the Orioles, it makes no sense.

We love Williams, but his agent, the ever-cooperative Scott Boras, is seeking a minimum of seven years, and an average annual value higher than Mike Piazza's $13 million.

We love Vaughn, but it would be difficult to justify giving him a five-year deal in the $60 million range when Calvin Pickering might evolve into the same type of slugging first baseman.

Brown, another Boras client, apparently prefers to stay in the National League and could be headed to Atlanta. Johnson is a health risk at 35, not to mention a loser of five straight postseason starts.

Give either of those pitchers $12 million-plus--and that's probably what it's going to take--and you would have to renegotiate Mike Mussina's contract to boost him to a comparable level.

Forget it.

The Orioles began last season with the highest payroll in major-league history, but Angelos is philosophically opposed to the spending frenzies that result in groundbreaking contracts. He would be foolish to reverse course now.

The Orioles could take the $12 million they would give Brown and sign Texas' Todd Stottlemyre, a middle reliever and closer. They then could acquire a catcher and sign St. Louis' Brian Jordan to play center field with the nearly $10 million in salary that likely will depart with Jimmy Key, Doug Drabek and Eric Davis.

Would all that put the Orioles in the World Series?


Would it at least make them competitive in '99?

Yes, because a rotation of Mussina, Stottlemyre, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson, combined with an improved bullpen, would keep them in games.

The Orioles could plug holes while waiting one more season for their top position prospects to develop, then sign a major free agent after the contracts of Cal Ripken and Mike Bordick expire.

You might as well get used to the idea now--this could be one of the worst offensive teams in the American League next season, with potentially below-average production at catcher, every infield position and Brady Anderson's outfield spot.

The Orioles likely will go with a stopgap at first if they lose Rafael Palmeiro and fail to sign Vaughn. They figure to give rookie Jerry Hairston a long look at second. And who knows what they'll get from their new catcher, especially if his strength is defense?

At least one thing appears certain--new General Manager Frank Wren is going to perform major surgery on a patient that should have been wheeled into the operating room six months ago.

Wren said last week that he wants players with speed and athleticism, players who will "answer the bell day in and day out."

That could eliminate the oft-injured Davis, who drove in 89 runs in 452 at-bats last season. But at least it's a plan.

Davis, 36, is three years younger, more athletic and more productive than Harold Baines. But it's Baines whom the club signed to a one-year, $1.5 million extension in September.

And now it will be more difficult for the Orioles to take a chance on the New York Mets' Todd Hundley, who might need to be a DH if his career as a catcher is over.

The Orioles can't escape their past sins--the five-year contract for Anderson will look even worse if it turns out that he had only one season left in center. And yet, signing a $12 million player would only compound the team's problems.

Brown or Johnson could be the No. 1 or No. 2 starter the Orioles have been seeking to push Erickson back to No. 3. Williams is a switch-hitting batting champion and Gold Glove center fielder. Then there's Vaughn, who might be the most appealing option of all.

If the Orioles were one player away from the World Series, we would urge them to get that player, regardless of price.

But they're not one player away. They need to spread their wealth, make room for their kids, take little steps now, and bigger ones later.

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