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8 Upper

The Winter Meetings of Our Discontent

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/22/1999

Let it not be said, after baseball's 1999 winter meetings, that the Orioles' five-member, no-general-manager baseball committee has failed to improve the Birds. Thanks to the democratically balanced efforts of Syd Thrift, Tom Trebelhorn, Tony DeMacio, and John and Lou Angelos, the Orioles are a better team now than they were in September. Unfortunately, "better" is a relative concept. Alan Keyes is better presidential timber than Gary Bauer. Fiona Apple is better than Tori Amos. The clap is better than herpes.

The committee—I hesitate to call it a "brain trust"—has gotten the Birds a new righty relief pitcher, Mike Trombley; a new lefty relief pitcher, Chuck McElroy; and a new second-string catcher, Greg Myers. And the Gang of Five (Party of Five?) retrieved designated hitter Harold Baines, whom the team loaned to the Cleveland Indians for the '99 stretch run and the playoffs. All those who think this patches up the gap between the Orioles and the world-champion Yankees, say "aye." I thought so.

One must give credit where credit is due. Jesse Orosco was a lovable and accomplished Oriole, but trading him to the Mets for McElroy was a smart and overdue move. Orosco is a one-batter specialist, the kind of pitcher who belongs in a fine-tuned bullpen. For a team like the O's, whose relief corps is in a shambles, the general-purpose McElroy should be much more useful.

I applaud, also, the departure of Jeff Reboulet, of the .162 average and 4 RBI, traded to Kansas City for a player to be named later. It doesn't matter who that player is, just so long as Reboulet is gone. He should never have been on the team in 1999; now, Jesse Garcia can take over the utility-infielder job he ought to have won in spring training last year. But getting rid of Reboulet is like throwing out a rotten tuna sandwich in the galley of a sinking yacht. It's worth doing, but there are bigger problems at hand.

And none of the Gang of Five's strategies for solving those problems inspire much hope. Their chief goal in the winter meetings was to shore up the starting rotation by signing left-handed pitcher Chuck Finley, a free agent from the Anaheim Angels. Instead, Finley went to Cleveland, for three years and $27 million dollars.

Still—Chuck Finley? The committee thought Chuck Finley was the answer? Finley went 12-11 for the Angels last year. It's true that he has pitched well in Anaheim, going 165-140 over 14 seasons. But he's pitched 14 seasons. He's 37 years old. After a pitcher turns 30, he ages in dog years. That makes Finley 79 years old. By the end of his three-year deal with Cleveland, he'll be an even 100.

The Orioles have done this before. They signed Jimmy Key at the age of 36. He had one decent season, then his arm fell off. That's how it goes with 37-year-olds. If the Orioles feel compelled to invest in a 37-year-old pitcher, what they should do is sign 31-year-old Mike Mussina, now in the last year of his contract, to a six-year deal. The 2006

Mussina is a good guy to spend money on. With due apologies to young 'uns Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson, Mussina will be the best pitcher on the team for the foreseeable future. He has enough different pitches at his disposal to get people out even when his arm starts to fade; given that he has a knuckleball in reserve, they should probably sign him through 2010.

No sooner had the Furious Five lost out on Finley than they started trying to get rid of Scott Erickson. Erickson is in demand for the same reason Finley was: He can pitch 200 innings a year at a .500-plus clip. A guy like that can hold a pitching staff together, simply by showing up and keeping the bullpen rested one day out of five. Plenty of teams could use him.

But so could the Orioles. If they keep Erickson, they've got him under contract till 2003, when he turns 35 (in pitcher years, that's 72). That's four more seasons he can help keep the pressure off the still-erratic Ponson and Johnson while they're learning their craft.

And if the O's do trade him for a bunch of young players, they won't have any place to put them. The return of Baines just aggravates the team's worst problem, a hopelessly mismanaged crew of position players. They're long past their old habit of letting veterans crowd out younger players; now, the veterans are crowding out each other. Just like last year, a half-dozen oldsters are jockeying to play left field, first base, or designated hitter. Who can give way? Jeff Conine just re-signed with the club, too. B.J. Surhoff has sentimental value. Albert Belle has a no-trade clause in his contract. Brady Anderson has sentimental value and a no-trade clause. Will Clark has no sentimental value and no no-trade clause, but no other team wants him.

If this was poker, the Gang of Five would be holding a pair of fives, a seven, a 10, and a jack. Their master plan, apparently, is to hang on and make a seven-card straight out of it. Anderson will go back to center field. Belle will go back to right. Clark will go back to the disabled list. Young Calvin Pickering, the only first baseman in the organization with a future, will go back to Rochester and waste another year. And the new and improved Orioles, if they're lucky, will go back to third place.

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