MINNEAPOLIS — The Baltimore Orioles have taken their pitching future out for a test drive, but it could be awhile before they find out where their youthful starting rotation is going to take them.
Rookies Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes made their major-league debuts this month, joining Ben McDonald, Bob Milacki and Jose Mesa (until he went on the disabled list) in a prototype rotation the club would like to put into mass production as soon as next year.
But the question facing the organization as the 1991 season draws to a close is this: How long is this pitching youth movement really going to take?
"There's no way to say," pitching coach Al Jackson said. "Every individual is different because their needs are different. The only thing they all have in common is that they need to pitch."
They are getting that opportunity, even though the early returns have been mixed. Mussina has pitched well in his first five starts. Rhodes has not pitched well in his first two. Of the remaining three starters, only Milacki has pitched consistently over an extended period, and he's too experienced to be placed in the same category as the others.
The Orioles would love to see all five of them start the 1992 season inthe starting rotation. That would be the best-case scenario, but no one -- certainly not manager John Oates -- is naive enough to think it is a very likely possibility.
"When we brought those guys up, it wasn't that we were saying they would be the five starters for the next 10 years," Oates said. "We don't expect all of them to develop at the same rate.
"Sure, we'd like to have all of them grow together. We'd like to see all five of them win 15 games next year and 18 games the next and 20 games the next. But realistically, expecting all of them to end up at the same place at the same time, well, that's just not likely to happen."
What the Orioles have done is chosen the young pitchers they feel are most likely to be front-line major-league starters at some point in the next three or four years and assembled them in a major-league en-vironment. How they respond will determine how the club proceeds next spring.
"When you have four guys [not including Milacki] in a rebuilding stage, you'd like to have all four make it," said Jackson, "but that's tough to do. I don't think I've seen anybody come out of spring training with that many unproven guys in the rotation. If you end up with three of the four, that's great. Four is almost asking for a miracle."
Especially when the four all appear to be at different stages in their development.
Rhodes just made the jump from Class AA to the major leagues, and his first two starts have left room to wonder if he'll be spending at least part of the 1992 season at the Class AAA level. If so, the Orioles could go with Dave Johnson in the fifth spot or try to sign a solid free-agent starter to anchor the staff.
"Looking at Rhodes now, I would say he needs some time at Triple-A," said assistant general manager Frank Robinson. "He has the physical capabilities, but he needs work on mechanics. That could come over the winter, but even if it does, I wouldn't mind seeing him spend some time there next season."
Mussina is another story. There are people within the organization who already consider him the most polished pitcher in the youthful rotation, even though McDonald has more than a year of experience at the major-league level.
"He is the most polished," Robinson said. "He is the most advanced. He is closer to being a pitcher than any of the other younger guys. That is not a knock at any of the other kids, but there's no doubt that Mike Mussina is ahead of the other kids as far as mechanics and being a complete pitcher."
Of course, no one was complaining about McDonald at this time last year. He was 8-5 and had an impressive 2.43 ERA after joining the rotation for the second half of the 1990 season. He has not even touched that performance this time around.
Mesa was the Orioles' most consistent pitcher through the first month of the 1990 campaign, but his season fell apart in mid-May and he spent the next six weeks in the minor leagues.
Going into the season, both McDonald and Mesa seemed ready to make a sizable contribution at the major-league level, but neither has been able to live up to the club's preseason expectations. The Orioles have experienced some severe growing pains lately, and there might be more to come.
"Any time you're dealing with young players who have not performed much at this level, it's a gamble," Robinson said. "You're taking a calculated risk. These guys don't have track records."
But there still are six months before spring camp opens in 1992, and a lot can happen in six months. Rhodes could mature. McDonald could come back strong. Mussina could stay on course. Mesa could get healthy.
"Now, you're dreaming," Robinson said. "I don't think it [the new rotation] is as far away as some people might think, but it would be asking a lot to start all five right out of spring training."
Site:.. .. .. .. .. .. The Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time:.. .. .. .. .. .. 8:05
Orioles starter:.. .. Bob Milacki (7-7, 4.01)
Twins starter:.. .. .. Tom Edens (0-0, 2.57)
Radio:.. .. .. .. .. ..WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
TV:.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Channels 2, 20