The journey to a return to the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation began yesterday for Jeff Ballard.
Ballard, the sensation of 1989 who lost his turn last season, signed a one-year contract with the Orioles for a $465,000 base salary, plus incentives bonuses.
The incentives weren't specified, but Ballard, 27, can earn nearly $500,000 if he attains them.
"I think he's probably going to be healthy. He realizes he's on a comeback," said assistant general manager Doug Melvin. "And I think he understands he needs to do it himself."
Ballard, speaking from a Montana mountain retreat, said: "I've been throwing since Dec. 10. I think I'm ready to start throwing breaking balls now. I'm going to Stanford next week to continue working.
"It's nice to get back to a routine that's been successful for me and not have that topsy-turvy travel schedule like last winter."
As the Orioles' player representative, Ballard was involved heavily in the contract negotiations with the owners last year.
With 18 victories, Ballard won more games than any other American League left-hander in 1989, helping the Orioles go down to the final weekend before losing the East title to the Toronto Blue Jays.
But, after two off-season elbow operations, he wasn't the same pitcher last summer. On June 28, after 15 starts, he had a 1-9 record and 5.28 ERA and spent the rest of the season in the bullpen except for two starts.
He finished 2-11 with a 4.93 ERA and allowed 152 hits, including 22 home runs, in 133 1/3 innings.
Unlike the previous season, when the Orioles provided him with nearly six runs per start, Ballard received only 69 runs in 17 starts last year (four per game), 27 of them in three games. The team scored three or fewer runs in 10 of his starts.
Barring a trade, Ballard is expected to get a chance to regain his starting berth, because the Orioles finished the season without a left-hander in the rotation.
"I really expect that fifth spot to be mine," he said. "I think it's more my job to lose than it is to win. Not that I can get hit all over the place in the spring, but I'm ready."
Melvin said, "Jeff wasn't the same last year, but he was pitching in a different role."
By signing Ballard, the Orioles have reached agreement with two of their nine players eligible for salary arbitration. The other was catcher Bob Melvin.
"It is a priority to get the arbitration players signed first," said Doug Melvin.
Ballard said: "I'm real pleased the Orioles moved things along. It shows me they have a lot of confidence in me and makes me feel a lot better going into spring training.
"I think it shows they have definite plans for me. They could have waited, but it's nice to know you have a good relationship with your club."
Mickey Tettleton is expected to go to a hearing after agreeing to arbitration rather than remain a free agent. Also eligible are Rene Gonzales, Kevin Hickey, Tim Hulett, Joe Orsulak, Bill Ripken and Mark Williamson.