SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was at about this time last year that the Orioles began to piece together one of the worst starting rotations in club history.
No one knew it at the time, of course. Team officials were busy iffing their way to the World Series, just like every other marginal club. But Jeff Ballard didn't win 18 games, Jeff Robinson didn't rebound from two years of arm problems, and Ben McDonald didn't pick up where he left off in 1990. The rotation unraveled in record time, and the team quickly tumbled to the bottom of the standings.
It could happen again.
When the pitchers and catchers open spring workouts today at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, there will be no Jack Morris or Frank Viola to anchor the restructured rotation. The Orioles have chosen to take the less expensive road, loading up again on castoffs and questionable arms in an attempt to cull quality from quantity.
Still, they are better off than a year ago. The additions of veteran right-handers Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis certainly have improved the odds of a major pitching turnaround, and the recent acquisition of journeyman left-hander Dennis Rasmussen gives the club even more depth and experience, such as it is. The Orioles have every right to believe that things will be different this year, but still there are lingering doubts about their viability as a division contender.
Manager John Oates doesn't share them. He is the first to admit that he is buying into the unbridled optimism of spring, but he is not without supporting evidence.
"The reports we've been getting are good," he said recently. "The reports we've been getting on [Eric] Hetzel are very good. Rasmussen is going to come in with a chance to make the club. We have more depth than we've had here. We've got a lot of people who have a chance to get major-league hitters out."
Most of the attention will be focused on the big two -- Sutcliffe and Davis -- both of whom are two years removed from the success that defined them as front-line starting pitchers.
Sutcliffe was 4-1 in a late-season attempt to prove that his right shoulder is fully recovered from surgery. If he's sound, he seems certain to have a positive impact. Davis struggled through two disappointing seasons with the Kansas City Royals, but should be helped by the Orioles' solid bullpen.
"I think Rick is on a mission," Oates said. "He's pitching for his life. If he has anything left, he's going to give it to us. The reports I've gotten are good. I talked to Rick and I talked to [Chicago Cubs trainer] John Fierro. Sometimes, the trainer has a better idea. He told me he thought we got a steal."
The Orioles didn't steal Davis. They traded reserve catcher Bob Melvin to the Royals to get him and assumed $1.9 million in guaranteed salary to audition him for the 1992 rotation.
"He threw the ball very well against us last year," Oates said. "He'll get every chance to make our club as a starter. If somebody beats him out, then he'll beat somebody out in the bullpen, and we'll be a better team. There is going to be some competition. That just makes you better."
The team will open spring training with at least nine candidates for five starting jobs, beginning with a projected rotation that includes Bob Milacki, McDonald, Mike Mussina, Sutcliffe and Davis. Right-hander Jose Mesa, who has been throwing well during winter workouts, will join Rasmussen, Hetzel and Anthony Telford in the competition for the first available opening, with promising Arthur Rhodes likely to spend one more year in the minor leagues.
New pitching coach Dick Bosman seems convinced that the added depth will help the Orioles get through the long summer months ahead. He saw how the club scrambled for help when the rotation started to deteriorate last year. He does not want to see that again.
"I feel a lot more comfortable with what we could end up with at Rochester," he said. "If there is something that you're looking for, it's more experienced and durable people."
It also should have a positive effect on the bullpen, which might benefit from a more regular work schedule after a 1991 season in which the starters let one of every four games get away in the first three innings. Stopper Gregg Olson, whose performance suffered from the lack of regular work, said the addition of the three veteran pitchers will make a big difference.
"I think they went out and put together a good starting rotation," he said. "Even if all three guys don't do a good job, it's three guys who know what to do. The chances of all three of them not doing a good job are pretty slim."
The coaching staff won't have it nearly as rough sorting out the bullpen, where a strong, all-around relief performance last year has left several pitchers solidly entrenched. Olson, Mike Flanagan, Todd Frohwirth and Jim Poole put up impressive numbers in 1991. Setup man Mark Williamson struggled to a 4.48 ERA, but a strong track record assures him of a place on the club unless he is packaged in a spring-training trade.