ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Dennis Rasmussen remains in the background. He is not one of the five pitchers projected to be in the Orioles starting rotation. He is not even on the roster. And yet, he is not to be taken lightly.
He is a member of baseball's new class of Triple-A veterans, a former 18-game winner who signed a Rochester Red Wings contract just so he could compete for a place on the Orioles pitching staff. He is out of the loop at the moment, but he can't be counted out of the rotation just yet.
Rasmussen, 32, made his second exhibition appearance yesterday and did nothing to take himself out of consideration. He worked three innings and gave up one hit to run his string of scoreless innings to five. The Orioles lost, however, to the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-4, for their first spring defeat.
If the season were to start today, the rotation would be Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina, Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis, but there is nearly a month left for manager John Oates to look at the other five candidates. Rasmussen probably is first in line if an opening develops, but he refuses to speculate on his chances.
"I don't worry about that," he said. "When it's my day to throw, that's the thing I can control. I've been around long enough to know that. I just want to force them to make a decision, so I have to go out and compete and get the job done."
The Orioles signed him for some insurance for the starting rotation, the club's major weakness last season. Rasmussen had to accept a Triple-A contract and the possibility that he might start the season with the Red Wings, but he said Baltimore offered the best opportunity to keep his big-league career alive.
He said yesterday that he was close to signing with the Orioles a year ago, but returned to the San Diego Padres when a deal couldn't be struck before the Jan. 8 deadline for free agents to re-sign with their original clubs.
"We were talking to them, but they were going back and forth on the Glenn Davis deal," he said. "They were straight with us. They said they wouldn't be able to get it done in time. The deadline came up, and I decided that it would be best to go back to San Diego."
Now, he can only wonder what would have been. He was 6-13 with the Padres, but his 3.74 ERA would have made him one of the most effective pitchers in the Orioles rotation. Instead, he suffered through an 0-9 stretch in which the Padres scored two runs or fewer in every game, and he ended up among the nearly 200 big-league players who accepted non-roster invitations to spring camp.
"That's just the way they [the Orioles] wanted it," Rasmussen said. "Sure, that was disappointing, but I'm not afraid to come in and compete for a job. I have always felt I had to do that anyway. I just wanted to come in in as good a shape as anybody and be ready to throw. I've been able to do that.
"I wanted to go where I had the best opportunity. I hope this is that situation. I wanted to be in a situation where I could compete for a spot. Hopefully, they will be open-minded."
The Orioles cannot afford to be anything else. They went through 12 starters in 1991, so they cannot assume that five will be enough this year. They cannot assume anything when it comes to Sutcliffe and Davis, both of whom are two years removed from their last decent seasons.
Rasmussen has one other thing going for him. He's a left-hander -- the only left-hander who has a legitimate chance to start the season in the rotation. The only other left-handed candidate, Arthur Rhodes, apparently will begin the season in the Red Wings rotation.
Oates insists that he would not have a problem with an all-right-handed rotation, but that was one of the reasons the club pursued Rasmussen in the first place.
"It's not a priority that I have to have a left-handed starter," Oates said, "but if a couple of guys were dead even, a left-hander would have an advantage."
Rasmussen's non-roster audition isn't limited to the rotation. He'll also work in some relief situations in case the club decides to keep him for the bullpen.
"He has a chance to be in our bullpen," Oates said. "He and I already have talked about that. He has chance, especially if [Jim] Poole is not healthy."
Poole, a left-hander, has been slow to get started this spring because of tendinitis in his shoulder, but he still is projected to be in the Orioles bullpen. If Poole can't open the season, Rasmussen would be valuable in a long-relief role, because he would give the club a second left-hander, and he can start if needed.