Davis comes home to come back

December 13, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Baseball's winter meetings are over, and a handful of teams have gone home better for their week in the Florida sun. Time will tell whether the Baltimore Orioles were one of them.

General manager Roland Hemond did not go away empty-handed. He acquired Storm Davis for reserve catcher Bob Melvin, the merit of the deal depending largely on whether Davis still has the potential to be an effective major-league starting pitcher.

"Obviously, we feel he does," Hemond said. "He shows good arm strength. He can still throw in the low 90s. Sometimes. If they show you arm strength and no physical problems, well, you don't always have your top year."

Davis certainly didn't in 1991. He was 3-9 with a 4.96 ERA, losing his place in a deep Kansas City Royals starting rotation. If those numbers have a familiar ring to them, it is because they are similar to those of Jeff Robinson (4-9, 5.18), the pitcher who was acquired for catcher Mickey Tettleton last winter.

But the Orioles have reason to feel that Davis will be different. He is coming back to Baltimore, where he began his major-league career in 1982. He will be reunited with Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis, who grew up with him in Jacksonville, Fla. He has a track record that includes a 102-81 career record and a 19-victory season for the Oakland A's in 1989.

"We wouldn't have traded for someone we didn't think would be effective," manager John Oates said. "He threw against us out of the bullpen last year and threw very well against us."

Therein lies one of the problems with trying to evaluate him. Davis lost his place in the starting rotation early in the 1991 season and did not pitch very consistently in an inconsistent role. The Orioles are gambling $1 million -- Davis' $2.3 million salary minus the $900,000 Melvin would have made and the $400,000 the Royals will pay -- that he'll respond to a fresh start in the Baltimore rotation.

"If spring training were to start tomorrow, he would be given a shot to be one of the starting pitchers," Oates said.

That apparently is more than he would have gotten with the Royals, who traded Davis and two-time Cy Young Award-winner Bret Saberhagen on Wednesday and still have six solid candidates for their 1992 rotation.

"They have a very deep staff," Hemond said. "We gave some people the ball last year and had a lot of patience because we didn't have anyone else to plug in there. They were in the #F opposite situation. They had Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Kevin Appier, [Tom] Gordon and [Luis] Aquino."

Hemond stopped before he listed Mike Boddicker and Mark Davis. That's how many starting pitchers Storm had to look up at when he was down.

"I hoped I would [be traded]," Davis said. "I didn't see any way for me to help them. I thought my days were numbered. This is something I have been thinking and praying about."

The Orioles have spent two years trying to plug holes in their rotation, which began to self-destruct early last year and had to be almost completely revamped at midseason. The nucleus of the 1992 rotation appears to be in place, but Bob Milacki, Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald will need some help. Two spots remain wide-open, one of them reserved for Davis if he pitches well in spring training.

"I'm sure he'll recognize that he has to perform in spring training," Hemond said.

Davis, 29, apparently is happy for the opportunity. He is happy to be coming back to Baltimore. He is happy to trade a struggling organization that no longer felt he could pitch for a struggling organization that still holds out hope that he can.

"When they [the Orioles] called, they said, 'We feel like you're going to help us compete,' " Davis said. "I said, 'That's fine, but I want to win.' "

It has been awhile. He was 7-10 in 1990. Things got worse last year. But Orioles fans will remember a young pitcher who had winning records in his first four major-league seasons. He was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1986 for Mark Williamson and Terry Kennedy. Kennedy was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Melvin. Melvin was traded to the Royals for Davis. Baseball is funny that way.

No one denies it is a gamble, but it is not a very big one. Melvin didn't figure to play a front-line role with the club next year, but he earned a front-line salary. Davis makes a lot more, but he would be a bargain if he came back to win 13 or 14 games for the club.

"That's the nature of the game," Hemond said. "Anyone you acquire, whether it be a free agent or in trade, you don't know what you're going to get. What we do know is that he's elated to be coming back, and you like to have that kind of player on your ballclub."

It is a perfect public relations match. Davis is coming back to where it all started and will get to play on the same team with Glenn Davis for the first time since the two were two-sport standouts at University Christian High School in Jacksonville. But human interest only goes so far.

Oates said there is more to it than that. He watched Davis pitch against the Orioles last year and liked what he saw. Scout Deacon Jones and assistant GM Frank Robinson also evaluated him and came back with positive reports.

"He threw a heavy fastball and got us out," Oates said. "He went about his work very well. He looked like he believed in himself. That's one of the things I liked about him."

The search for pitching help does not stop there. Hemond said yesterday that the club still maintains interest in signing a free-agent starter, and right-hander Kirk McCaskill still is scheduled to visit Baltimore on Monday. Oates said he hopes to have at least one more starting candidate by spring training.

"You better believe it," Oates said. "Our goal is to make this the best ballclub we can. Whether we get a sixth starting pitcher or upgrade the five we've got, I hope we're not through."

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