SARASOTA, Fla. -- Ask assistant general manager Doug Melvin what the Orioles must do to contend this season, and he points to the necessity of three pitchers combining for 90 starts.
Sounds simple enough, but for the Orioles, it's anything but. Seventeen of the other 25 clubs met Melvin's standard last season. The Orioles, for the fourth time in five years, did not.
It's clear the trend must be broken. But it isn't clear whether the club's projected five-man rotation includes three pitchers dependable enough to average 30 starts.
Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald have yet to reach that total at the major-league level. Rick Sutcliffe, Storm Davis and Bob Milacki have yet to reach it this decade.
The last time three Orioles pitchers made 30 starts in the same season was 1986, when Mike Boddicker, Scott McGregor and Ken Dixon each finished with 33.
The last time three combined for 90 starts was '89, but even that gets an asterisk, for two pitchers -- Milacki (36 starts) and Jeff Ballard (35) -- carried most of the load.
In the past five years the Orioles have had only four 30-game starters.
Atlanta, Los Angeles and California each had that many last season alone.
Hold on, this gets better.
Three of the 53 pitchers who made at least 30 starts last season were former Orioles -- Pete Harnisch, Mike Morgan and Dennis Martinez. A fourth, Mike Boddicker, fell just short with 29.
The Orioles -- surprise! -- were the only team without a 30-game starter. Milacki led the club with 26, followed by Jose Mesa with 23 and Ballard with 22.
That total (71 starts) was the fourth lowest by a team's leading threesome in the past 20 years.
This wasn't just one of the worst starting rotations in club history.
It was one of the worst in a long, long time.
Indeed, the only teams that got less out of their top three starters in the past two decades were the '82 New York Mets (69 starts), the '75 Cleveland Indians (68) and the '73 Texas Rangers (63).
Lucky guy that he is, Frank Robinson managed both the '75 Indians and '91 Orioles. Dick Bosman might be just as cursed: He pitched for the '73 Rangers; now he's pitching coach of the Orioles.
Here's the best part: In this comparison of rotations, the '91 Orioles were even worse than the '88 edition, which got a combined 74 starts out of Ballard, Jose Bautista and Jay Tibbs.
Now, having three 30-game starters doesn't guarantee success -- the Angels had four last season and finished last in the AL West. Conversely, the San Francisco Giants had none in '87 and won the NL West.
Still, manager John Oates yesterday called it "a good starting point" and said he'd be "tickled to death" if three such pitchers emerged on his staff.
But strangely enough, the only pitcher in camp who has averaged 30 starts over the past six seasons isn't even a projected member of Oates' rotation.
Watch out for Dennis Rasmussen: He's reliable, and he's lefthanded. In other words, he's the perfect choice to break up an all-righthanded rotation in a ballpark expected to favor lefthanders.
Rasmussen probably won't make the club unless one of the projected starters gets injured, but he deserves a long look because none of the top five is a sure thing.
Sutcliffe is the most obvious choice to make 30 starts, for he has done it five times in his 14-year career (1979, '83 and '87-'89). But he also has made eight separate trips to the disabled list, including a 67-day stint because of shoulder trouble last season.
Davis wasn't even a full-time starter with Kansas City the past two years. In fact, he has made 30 starts only twice since 1984, both for AL championship clubs in Oakland that backed him with a solid bullpen and ample run support.
Milacki? It took him a season and a half to recover from his hefty workload in '89. McDonald? He has yet to avoid injury in spring training, much less stay healthy an entire year.
Mussina, in fact, might prove the most durable of the young pitchers. Not only did he work a combined 31 starts and 210 innings at Rochester and Baltimore last season, his 1.66 ERA after Sept. 1 was second in the AL only to Oakland's Mike Moore.
The Orioles don't need five pitchers to average 30 starts, just three. Last season they opened with three starters who no longer are with the team (Ballard, Jeff Robinson and Dave Johnson) and a fourth who might soon join them (Mesa). Milacki led the club with 10 wins, but only after starting at Double A.
It can't get any worse.