ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mark Williamson knows the drill. A crowd is forming in the Orioles bullpen, and there is a chance he will be crowded out by Opening Day.
This is the nature of the summer game. One summer, you can be one of the best setup men in baseball. The next, you get banged up a little bit and the whispering begins.
Williamson has heard it all. His arm is shot. His place on the roster is in danger. He is going to be traded to make room in the bullpen for promising newcomer Jim Lewis. That's what happens when your ERA doubles from one year to the next.
"I can't worry about any of that," said Williamson, who gave up one run on one hit in 2 2/3 innings in the Orioles' 3-1 exhibition victory over the Texas Rangers at Al Lang Stadium. "For four years, I've heard trade rumors about myself and I'm still here. Look at Moose [Randy Milligan]. They've been trying to trade him for months and he's still here. I don't think they'll make a trade just for the sake of making a trade."
The Orioles might, however, make a trade to avoid a difficult decision. Williamson struggled through an injury-marred season in 1991, but strong performances in 1989 and '90 established him as one of the league's top middle relievers. He still has value, and the club may need to make room for someone else.
Lewis, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Craig Worthington trade, has been impressive in both his workouts and a couple of exhibition appearances. He could stay. The Orioles also might need to open a space for one of the jilted candidates for the starting rotation.
If, for instance, Storm Davis fails to hold his place in the rotation, the club probably will move him into long relief and start Dennis Rasmussen or Jose Mesa.
Manager John Oates said yesterday that he is a long way from making any decisions, but he didn't argue with the notion that at least one veteran pitcher could be vulnerable.
"There's been so much good pitching that we might be forced to do something with someone who was here last year," Oates said, "but no one has forced our hand yet."
The process of elimination is simple enough. Gregg Olson isn't ++ going anywhere, nor are Mike Flanagan and Todd Frohwirth. Left-hander Jim Poole isn't entirely safe, but he is coming off a surprising performance in 1991 that makes valuable to the Orioles.
That leaves Williamson, who has been waiting for news of a trade since the end of last season.
"I can joke about it [being traded]," Williamson said, "but I can only control one part of my career. All I can do is pitch. I have no say over where I play."
How did it come to this? He was 10-5 with a 2.93 ERA during the Orioles "Why Not?" season of 1989. He was 8-2 with a 2.21 ERA the following year. But injuries and inconsistency raised his ERA by a couple of runs last year, and he was pushed out of his setup role by newcomer Frohwirth.
Williamson still appeared in 65 games and pitched a lot of good innings, but Frohwirth (7-3, 1.87 ERA) was almost unhittable after he was brought up from the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings early in the season.
"Frohwirth was getting the bulk of the work by the end of the year," Oates said, "but it was not so much what Willie didn't do. It was what Frohwirth did do.
"When [Williamson] was healthy last year, he pitched fine for us. The problem was, when you compared him with Frohwirth, [Frohwirth] was pitching unbelievably."
Williamson pitched with a variety of nagging injuries, including a rib-cage strain that put him on the disabled list from Aug. 14 to Sept. 1. He doesn't blame his poor performance on last year's physical problems, but he doesn't discount the connection.
"It may have had some effect, but it was not enough to keep me from pitching," he said. "I pitched in 65 games last year. Whether it was in long relief or whatever, I still was in 65 games.
"I think what overshadowed my role was the way Todd Frohwirth pitched. Everyone made reference to my ERA [4.48] being two runs higher than the previous two years combined [2.62]. Well, sorry. I didn't mean for it to happen like that, but if you take away three bad outings, it's more like 2.80. That's not so bad."
As to whether 179 appearances over three seasons may have reduced his arm strength, Williamson says he doesn't believe so.
"It's the nature of the game that when things aren't going well, people ask 'What's wrong,' " he said. "Look at Cal [Ripken]. The year before last, everyone was saying that he was tired. He needed a day off. After last year, no one is saying anything. I guess you're only as good as your last game and your last year."
Exhibition opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)