SARASOTA, Fla. -- The spring routine has become, well, routine. The young pitchers try to pop the glove right away and the old pitchers try not to pop anything else.
Rookie Arthur Rhodes has been the noisiest pitcher in early workouts each of the past three years, but his performance during the first weekend of 1992 training camp has truly been an eyepopper.
"That's the best I've ever seen Arthur Rhodes throw," Oates said. "He was smoking it. I'm very encouraged. If this guy starts improve, well, that's the kind of thing you look forward to in the spring."
Oates had to stop himself. He was about to say that if Rhodes continues to improve, he might start the season in the major-league rotation. But that is not the plan.
Rhodes appeared to pitch himself out of that opportunity during a rocky eight-start audition at the end of the 1991 season. He ran up an 8.00 ERA and walked 32 batters in 36 innings, leaving club officials convinced that he would have to spend one more season with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.
That may happen, but what happened yesterday opened some eyes . . . and at least one mind.
"In the back of my mind, everyone has made a certain type of impression on me," Oates said, "but in the front of my mind, everyone has the opportunity to change that impression. In the back of my mind, I've got a staff picked out, but it is not in cement. That's what spring training is all about. One day doesn't make a career, but he showed me he can do it. Now, it's up to us to get it out of him."
We're not talking raw velocity here. Rhodes has had that ever since he was the club's second-round choice in the June 1988 free-agent draft. He has come to spring training each of the past three years and flashed the best left arm in the organization, but this is the first time he has shown that he really has that arm under control.
The difference is a mechanical adjustment in his delivery that was first proposed by general manager Roland Hemond. Rhodes was rolling his front foot toward the first-base dugout as he followed through to the plate, so the coaching staff has worked to open his stride and get him moving entirely in the right direction.
"I'm throwing much better now," Rhodes said. "I was out there throwing well. We changed some things and I'm throwing the ball inside more, down and in to the right-handed hitters."
Rhodes was not throwing to hitters yesterday. That will come later this week. He was throwing to non-roster catcher Mark Parent, who was impressed with his velocity and location.
"I saw him throw in his debut in Texas," said Parent, who was with the Texas Rangers in 1991. "You could see he had a great arm, but he was very nervous. John [Oates] said they were trying to work on his mechanics a little bit. The thing they wanted him to change, he seemed to pick up very quickly."
Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman were on the practice mound with Rhodes throughout yesterday's workout, walking him through the alteration in his stride. The results were almost instant.
"He was hitting the target I set eight out of 10 times," Parent said. "He had good arm speed, and he put it [the ball] where he wanted to. I was very impressed."
If you're a pitcher, this is not the time of year to show off your arm -- unless you have an affinity for tendinitis -- but Rhodes has so much velocity that he can pop the glove without even extending himself.
"His 80 percent is more than a lot of guys' 100 percent," Parent said. "Sometimes, that can work against you because you lose the pitching part of it. He seems adherent to the advice they are trying to give him. It should be fun to see how he comes along."
The Orioles have been saying that for some time, but this is the first real sign that Rhodes is making the transition from hard thrower to power pitcher.
The six weeks he spent at the major-league level last year reinforced the notion that he was not ready to compete there. He was so nervous in his debut that he threw one fastball off the screen behind home plate and bounced a curveball on the grass in front of it. He pitched well twice in his eight starts and did nothing to dispel the notion that his arrival was premature. But Oates says the 1991 audition was not detrimental to Rhodes' development, even if it had to test his self-confidence.
"I think it was a good experience for him," Oates said. "How do you tell a guy he needs to make changes when he's never gotten hit? That gave us an opening to tell him, 'Hey Arthur, not only do you have to throw the ball 94 mph, and not only do you have to throw it in the strike zone, you've got to throw it where you want it in the strike zone.' "
Rhodes is glad he got the chance to face some major-league hitters, and he doesn't seem to be at a loss for self-confidence. He said yesterday that he doesn't think he needs another year in the minor leagues to become a winning major-league pitcher.
"I think I can win if I'm up there right now," he said. "I'm throwing well. I still have to go out there and work. But I feel like I'm ready."
Most strikeouts per nine innings among Class AAA and Class AA starters in 1991:
Pitcher, Org... .. .. .. .. ..Class.. .. .. ..K/9 IP
Mo Sanford, Cin... .. .. .. ..AAA.. .. .. ... 11.30
Wilson Alvarez, Ch. (A).. .. ..AA.. .. .. .. ..9.75
Arthur Rhodes, Bal... .. .. .. AA.. .. .. .. ..9.70
Archie Corbin, K.C... .. .. .. AA.. .. .. .. ..9.56
Roger Salkeld, Sea... .. .. ..AAA.. .. .. .. ..9.36