MILWAUKEE -- Next year begins officially for the Orioles tonight in Texas.
It's not that the last couple of months have been terribly significant. Or that the current losing streak, which reached three with a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers here yesterday, is any more meaningful than the five-game winning streak that preceded it.
Because of various and sundry circumstances, nothing that has transpired to this point is as important as what happens the rest of the way. The playing personnel has finally been positioned for an early reading on 1992.
After an absence of almost four months, Glenn Davis returns to the lineup tonight, leaving 44 games for him and the Orioles to determine a course of action for next season. And, after a few weeks of speculation, lefthander Arthur Rhodes steps into the starting rotation Wednesday night, giving him nine possible starts to claim a big-league job.
The latest moves hardly rival the purge of July 30, when the Orioles divested themselves of three pitchers and set in motion the chain of events leading them to this point. With Ben McDonald, Bob Milacki, Mike Mussina, Jose Mesa and Rhodes in place, manager John Oates hopes he is setting up next year's rotation eight months early.
And with the return of Davis, he is hoping to get an extended look at the lineup the Orioles had in mind when this season started. After playing only 12 games (four home runs, eight runs batted in) Davis was sidelined April 25 with an injury to the spinal accessory nerve in his neck, which in turn caused weakness to the trapezius muscle in his right shoulder.
Having received medical clearance to resume full activity, and proclaiming himself ready after a seven-game rehabilitation assignment, Davis steps back into the middle of the lineup he was expected to anchor last spring.
"This is something the organization has looked forward to since last winter," Oates said of Davis' return.
How Davis performs the rest of the year, naturally, will determine his and the club's course of action for next year, when the righthanded-hitting slugger is eligible for free agency. However, as important as his return is, the Orioles' long range plans could be most affected by the performance of the five starting pitchers.
This will be the third straight week the Orioles have added a young arm from the minor-league system to their rotation. First it was Mussina, then Mesa (who went to Rochester after opening the season as the Orioles' No. 2 starter) and now Rhodes.
"Hopefully these five will stay healthy enough to pitch the rest of the year," said Oates. "Starting today [yesterday] that gives them all nine starts."
It also means that Dave Johnson is the fifth starter (in addition to Jeff Ballard, Jeff Robinson, Roy Smith and Mesa) to be shuffled out of the rotation. Ballard and Robinson are currently in limbo at Rochester, Smith is in jeopardy of joining them -- perhaps today when the Orioles clear a spot for Davis -- and Johnson has been dispatched to the no-man's land of the bullpen for the second time.
While he was on a rehab assignment after a groin injury, Johnson openly campaigned for his return to the rotation. But he has not been effective since his return, giving up 13 runs in 9 2/3 innings his last three starts, and yesterday he got the news he was going back to the bullpen.
"When I got my chance before, I said it was time to put up or shut up," said Johnson. "Now it's time to shut up.
"I haven't been myself all year," said the righthander. "This has been like a lost season for me.
"My sinker hasn't been effective and it got to the point where the last four times out I haven't even bothered to use it. That's the pitch I have to live and die with -- and I haven't done that. I've got nobody to blame but myself."
The promotion of Rhodes, while not unexpected, comes at a particularly awkward time. The 21-year-old lefthander had a seven-game winning streak at Hagerstown after losing on Opening Day -- but has lost his last three in a row. The most recent was a 2-1 decision to Reading last Thursday night, but the feeling in the organization is that the time has come for his big-league baptism.
"I'm not looking for him to come in and set the world on fire," said Oates, who will probably option Brady Anderson or David Segui Wednesday to make room for Rhodes. "What I want him to do is come in and find out what it's like to pitch at this level. This gives us a chance to get a good read on him. He'll get two starts in August and possibly six or seven in September.
"It gives us a much better chance to get an idea than just giving him two or three starts the last month," said Oates.
The only reading the Orioles need on Davis regards his health. They'll want to make sure he can hold up after a rigorous rehabilitation program.
Oates had planned to ease Davis back into the lineup as the designated hitter before putting him at first base, but that could change with Nolan Ryan on the mound tonight.
"I might put him at first base and see if I can DH somebody else," said Oates. "Randy [Milligan] is 0-for-8 against him [Ryan] and we don't have too many guys with any numbers. Glenn did get on base three out of four times [two walks and a single] when we faced him in April."
Regardless of where he plays, getting Davis in the lineup is the next to last step in the Orioles' early preparation for next year. The final move comes Wednesday, when Rhodes makes his debut.
After that, everything else will be window dressing until Memorial Stadium is phased out of the baseball business on Oct. 6.