Nothing is easier than spending another man's cash. And nothing is cheaper than free advice.
Despite this, Edward Bennett Williams would be extremely wise this winter to spend $10 million of his Baltimore Orioles' money on two major free agents. If it costs $2.5 million to sign Andre Thornton for three years and $7 million to get Bruce Sutter for five years, then he should do it.
If Sutter's price goes through the prohibitive $10 million roof, then the Orioles shouldn't quit making multimillion-dollar offers until they've signed Steve Trout or Dennis Eckersley or even Don Aase for the pitching staff.
Then, the Orioles can start talking trades: Storm Davis or Scott McGregor, plus an outfielder, for Rickey Henderson of Oakland; or Mike Flanagan for Lonnie Smith of St. Louis. Or . . .
Or who knows what. If the Orioles sign Thornton and a front-line pitcher -- either a starter or Sutter -- their tempting trade permutations would be vast.
After years of fancy offseason talk and little action, the Orioles will probably make headlines this winter.
Because they'd better.
And because they know they've got little excuse if they don't.
It would take a major mess-up for the Orioles not to sign Thornton, who had 33 homers and 99 RBI last season; also, according to insiders, Baltimore's chances of signing Sutter may be better than any other team except the desperate-for-relief Toronto Blue Jays. What isn't commonly known is that the Orioles have trimmed their payroll so drastically that they'll almost certainly sign a "name" pitcher, even if they don't wrest Sutter from a St. Louis organization that wants badly to keep him.
The Orioles have always subsisted at the fringes of the free agent banquet, bargain-hunting for a Steve Stone or Jim Dwyer. This winter, a worried Williams figures to open his wallet so wide he may be baseball's No. 1 free agent spender. Finishing fifth after winning the World Series will do that to you.
The tipoff to the Orioles' plans came in September, when the normally nonviolent organization took ax in hand and chopped off Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, Benny Ayala and Tom Underwood ($400,000 salary in '84!).
Released 'em, just like they showed Jim Palmer the door in midseason.
According to sources, that means a total payroll saving of almost exactly $2 million, from opening day of 1984 to the first pitch of 1985.
If the Orioles pay Thornton $800,000 and Sutter $1.5 million next season, while adding a couple of minimum-pay rookies like Larry Sheets and Nate Snell to their roster, they'd increase the payroll less than $500,000.
All of baseball knows the Orioles want, and will probably sign, Thornton, 36, as their designated hitter. Even Thornton's agent -- Alan Hendricks of Houston -- said yesterday, "We see clearly what a logical 'fit' Andy is with the Orioles . . . Everybody does . . . They've demonstrated a lot of interest. Williams called twice on draft day to make sure we understood his seriousness. Of course, we'll go through the process of talking with all the (eight available) teams, but you'd have to see the Orioles grouped with the Twins, Blue Jays and Royals as the logical choices . . .
"It seems like the Orioles are really going to be in the market this time," said Hendricks, who also has heard from the Orioles about Trout, another of his clients. "I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Baltimore get Sutter. Two of Bruce's best friends are my clients and they say he may lean toward Baltimore because he wants to play for a contender in a quiet city that's close to his home town (Lancaster, Pa.).
"Look at who Baltimore's drafted. They've obviously got a battle strategy with Plans A, B, C and D."
Baltimore has drafted Lee Lacy (.321) and Cliff Johnson as backups if it doesn't sign Andy (Thornton) as designated hitter. One of 'em will be an Oriole.
The Orioles have drafted Sutter and long shot Rick Sutcliffe -- guys who'll probably get $1.5 million a year for several seasons. If the Orioles are shut out on these two -- who are perhaps the top starter and reliever in the game at the moment -- they've also drafted double-figure winners Trout, Eckersley and Ed Whitson, as well as bullpen right-hander Aase (1.62 ERA).
If Baltimore is willing to make competitive bids on Sutter, then doesn't it seem likely a decision has been made to spend enough to nab at least an Aase or Eckersley?
On draft day last week, Williams said, "We do not have a hole in our starting pitching. But if we were to pick up another starter, that could put us in a strong position from which to make trades."
In this era, winter mind games almost always define the summer game. The term "offseason" is now a spectacular misnomer. The Tigers and Padres did far more to set up their World Series showdown when they acquired Willie Hernandez and Darrell Evans in Detroit, Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles in San Diego than they did in any doubleheader sweep.
The Orioles now are playing that same sort of real-life version of Rotisserie League baseball. It's a blend of fact and fantasy that should make the next couple of months buzz by with a subliminal baseball hum.
Best-case scenario: The Orioles sign Thornton and Sutter, then trade Davis and any outfielder except Mike Young for Henderson (this deal already has been discussed). Opening day lineup: Henderson (cf), Young, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Thornton, Gary Roenicke, Wayne Gross (22 homers) . . . The rotation of Mike Boddicker, McGregor, Flanagan (all past or current 20-game winners), Dennis Martinez and Sammy Stewart wouldn't be too bad with Sutter and Tippy Martinez behind it.
Even if the Orioles got Aase, not Sutter, the same things could happen. In fact, because of Stewart's swing-man versatility, it really doesn't matter too much which kind of pitcher the Orioles sign so long as he's solid enough to allow the team to put one of its Big Four starters in a trade.
If a Henderson deal proves sticky because of his salary and the tag that he's Not An Oriole Type Player, the world is full of fleet leadoff men who can chase fly balls and be grabbed in exchange for a proven starter. Heck, the Orioles have so many contingency plans that they've even drafted overpriced Fred Lynn, in case all else fails.
The Orioles, like many teams in this period of baseball parity, are at a difficult crossroads. The clear lesson of '84 was that a couple of key personnel moves, or a couple of mistakes, could move a team from bottom to top or top to bottom in one year. If you don't like to gamble, you shouldn't be running a baseball team in the '80s.
The Orioles have always built slowly and usually from within. But this is the time to break tradition -- just once. Thornton, plus a quality pitcher, is no longer a luxury expense, but rather a necessity. With them, the next couple of Oriole seasons would be dramatic. Without them, those years could be dreadful bores and attendance catastrophes.
In truth, the Orioles, so famous for their patience and restraint, really have little choice. They must step out of character and roll the dice. Not because their hopes of success are so excellent, but because their chances for failure are so high if they do not.