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8 Upper

Batter Out

By Tom Scocca | Posted 7/25/2001

By the end of July, the worst-batting team in the American League needs to get rid of its best hitter. Let me rephrase that: One of the worst-batting teams in baseball--your .252 Baltimore Orioles--needs to trade away its best hitter. The getting-rid-of-guys phase of the rebuilding plan is over. Now comes the deal-making part.

And if the Orioles are going to make a deal before that July 31 trading deadline, they have exactly one top-shelf player to offer. Jeff Conine is 35 years old, he's having one of the best seasons of his career, and he plays a position at which at least two contenders are shopping for help. Actually, he plays four positions, but it's first base where the job openings are. The Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs both need a first baseman, and the Cubs--having seen Fred McGriff veto a deal that would have taken him from Tropicana Field to Wrigley Field--are starting to look desperate.

The thought of trading Conine is scary. With the ever-gimpy David Segui on the disabled list, Conine is the only major-league heart-of-the-order hitter in the Orioles' lineup. He leads the team in hitting, runs, and RBIs. If Conine stays here, he'll be the leading candidate for Most Valuable Oriole; if he goes, Mike Hargrove might be batting Melvin Mora cleanup by September.

And yet, the O's should trade him while they can. After four and a half months of tolerably decent baseball (stretching back to last summer's roster dump), the Baby Birds' pluck has run out. The young players aren't good enough yet, the old players aren't good enough anymore, and hustle and hopefulness aren't making up the difference. Through July 23, the Orioles were in a 3-14 swoon, spanning the All-Star break and the Great Baltimore Tunnel Fire.

As good a year as Conine's having, he's not going to carry this club into contention. Unless two or three of the young'uns round into form soon, he's not even going to carry the club into third place. The rebuilding process has already turned painful and embarrassing. Now it's time to take a slug of whiskey, bite down on a musket ball, get out the hacksaw, and go through with the rest of it.

The rumblings from the Warehouse suggest that management knows it's time for drastic measures. But the Warehouse's idea of drastic measures seems to involve trading Sidney Ponson. The Warehouse needs a little tutoring on the difference between "drastic" and "moronic." With apologies to wunderkind Josh Towers and up-from-the-ashes Jason Johnson, Ponson is the closest thing to an anchor that the O's starting rotation has got. He's 24 years old and he has been pitching like a big-leaguer since 1998. He may not be the most consistent pitcher from start to start, or even week to week, but he looks like he'll keep on doing a decent job year to year. The O's aren't in a position to write that off.

Oh, if the Twins, as rumored, want to take a flier on Jose Mercedes, it might be worth listening to their offer; Mercedes is older, and his career is less confidence-inspiring than Ponson's. That's about all the team can spare, pitching-wise. The Warehouse is proud of the young arms in the farm system, but young arms aren't the same thing as young pitchers. At the present rate of arm injury--with Luis Rivera, Matt Riley, Beau Hale, and Richard Stahl all nursing some degree of trouble--the O's had better hang on to the pitchers they've got. If anything, they might want to trade for another pitcher or two. The offense is feeble, but it's not the only cause of the collapse. The team averaged 3.27 runs per game after the All-Star break and went 2-9; if they'd scored five runs each time out, they'd have gone 3-8.

So what do the Orioles need? They need pitching--another reliable starter and at least two relievers. They need a catcher who can hit, to replace the inexcusable Brook Fordyce. They desperately, desperately need a leadoff man, someone with an on-base percentage over .400--Brian Roberts and Brady Anderson, who split leadoff duties this past weekend, are hovering around .300.

The simplest way to get some of those things without taking a big chunk out of the future is to make a deal with a contender for Conine. This assumes, against the evidence, that the Warehouse is capable of making such a deal, that Syd Thrift is able to ring up the Braves and talk business with Frank Wren to both sides' mutual benefit. It's not likely, but it's likelier than Plan B, which is that a leadoff man spontaneously materializes in the Oriole Park clubhouse. We might as well hope.

Without Conine, of course, the O's also need to hope that major-league third-, fourth-, and fifth-place hitters show up. But at least there are candidates. Chris Richard, Jay Gibbons, and Tony Batista could all grow into middle-of-the-lineup hitters. And if they need reinforcements, another slugging 1B-DH to pick up where Conine leaves off, there happens to be one handy. His name is Calvin Pickering, and he plays for the Orioles' Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. He's batting .283, with 14 home runs, 74 RBIs, and 51 walks. All it would take to add him to the lineup is a phone call: (716) 454-1001. Even the Warehouse should be able to handle that.

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