ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Slowly but surely, the picture is getting clearer. The Orioles' spring rotation has been whittled to six pitchers, and at least one of the leftover candidates probably will end up in the bullpen.
Manager John Oates confirmed yesterday that the field has been narrowed to the five pitchers originally projected to be in the rotation and stubborn Jose Mesa, who seems intent on forcing his way into the regular-season rotation. Left-hander Dennis Rasmussen is being steered to the bullpen, where the club may have to find a replacement for middle reliever Jim Poole.
Poole was sent to Baltimore yesterday to have his sore shoulder examined by club orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein. He might be able to start the season on time, but it is becoming more apparent he also could open it on the disabled list.
"Dr. Silberstein is going to do some tests to see what's causing the continued soreness," Oates said. "The other day [Friday] in Dunedin, Jim didn't look mechanically sound, so we wanted to get him up there and get him checked out."
The shoulder problem is not new. Poole apparently complained of discomfort as early as January, and came up sore during the first week of spring workouts. The club kept him on the sideline for several weeks, but he still complained of some stiffness after he pitched one inning in his spring debut on Monday in Fort Lauderdale. He tested the shoulder again on Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays, but it was apparent to Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman that something was not right.
Opening Day is just two weeks away, and Poole has pitched only two innings. Even if the soreness subsides in a few days --which is doubtful, considering that he was still sore after nearly a month of rehabilitation -- he probably would have to start the season on the disabled list or an injury rehabilitation assignment.
"For the job he has to do, he would be OK [if he isn't delayed further]," Oates said, "but unless we can come up with something miraculous, well, we'll just have to wait and see."
Poole's misfortune probably equals opportunity for Rasmussen, who would have been hard-pressed to win a place in the major-league rotation the way the rest of the competition has pitched during the first 2 1/2 weeks of the exhibition season.
The Orioles' front five -- Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina, Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis -- have a combined 1.75 ERA, and it took a five-run fourth inning by Sutcliffe in yesterday's rain-shortened 5-0 loss to the Texas Rangers to push it that high.
Mesa, who is not far out of the inner circle, has pitched nine scoreless innings in exhibition action and combined with reliever Alan Mills on seven perfect innings in a "B" game Saturday.
Oates could be forced into a painful decision if Mesa, 25, continues to throw well. The right-hander is out of options, so he must make the team or be placed on waivers, where he almost certainly would be claimed. If he stays, he likely would start because club officials have indicated they do not feel his arm could stand up to the rigors of relief work.
That means Davis could be forced into a long-relief role, something he hoped he had left in Kansas City when the Royals traded him to the Orioles for reserve catcher Bob Melvin. But something has to give.
Oates has made clear that he would like to have two left-handers in the bullpen, so Poole's spot figures to go to Rasmussen. Davis' big, guaranteed contract assures him a place on the pitching staff, but the club would have to make room for him by going with 11 pitchers or moving an established reliever aside.
There has been speculation that a deal will be made involving right-handed setup man Mark Williamson. Right-handed submariner Todd Frohwirth also might not be safe. He was once considered a lock to make the club, based on his 7-3 record and 1.87 ERA last year, but he has not pitched well this spring (10.13 ERA).
The club already is preparing for the possibility that Rasmussen will be in the bullpen, and Oates said yesterday that the pitcher would be steered in that direction. He has made only a handful of relief appearances during his professional career, but he warmed up well for his first situational relief appearance of the spring Thursday.
"If I had to base my opinion on one appearance," Oates said, "I'd say he can do it. He warmed up in three minutes and 27 seconds."
If the scenario plays out that way, the Orioles would not have to look far for a spot starter -- or two -- but they would be tinkering with a bullpen that was effective last year.