For Pete's sake, Glenn, have a super season

Ken Rosenthal

March 23, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- It's impossible to rate the Glenn Davis trade without knowing the slugging first baseman's impact on the Orioles when healthy. But for one season at least, righthander Pete Harnisch made the deal look more one-sided than anyone ever imagined.

Harnisch's improvement with Houston was so dramatic, the trade would have been questioned even if Davis hadn't missed 105 games with a rare neck injury. As it stands, the Orioles might not be vindicated unless Davis averages 30 homers and 100 RBIs over his new two-year contract.

That's not an unreasonable expectation if Davis stays healthy, but Harnisch was a National League All-Star last season and outfielder Steve Finley may join him before long. The third player in the deal, reliever Curt Schilling, remains an enigma, but one who throws 93 mph.

Just imagine if the Orioles could reverse the trade. Randy Milligan would be happy, Finley would be the leadoff hitter, and with Harnisch joining Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina and Jose Mesa, the young starting rotation would look nearly as imposing as Atlanta's.

Intriguing thoughts, but under the same circumstances the Orioles would make the deal again, and rightfully so. Davis was a necessary addition for a team that finished last in the AL in total bases in 1990. Fourteen months ago, all else seemed incidental, and the price did not seem especially high.

Schilling was the same as he is now, a hard thrower learning how to pitch. Finley had star potential, but he was a platoon player, and an occasionally fragile one at that. And Harnisch, who was wildly inconsistent, had such faulty mechanics, the Orioles feared he'd ruin his arm.

Yes, there was risk -- Finley, then 25, was the oldest; the other two were 24 -- but the deal appeared to favor the Orioles. The Astros originally demanded a 5-for-1 swap including Milacki and Mark Williamson. The Orioles tried pushing Williamson instead of Schilling, but otherwise had no regrets.

And now?

The Orioles weren't surprised by Schilling, who was 3-5 with a 3.81 ERA and eight saves last season but split time between the majors and Triple-A. Nor were they surprised by Finley, who established himself as a solid everyday centerfielder, batting .285 with 34 stolen bases in 159 games.

Harnisch, though, was another story. He benefited, like the slap-hitting Finley, from playing in the cavernous Astrodome. But he also led the NL with a .212 opponents' batting average, tied for fourth with 172 strikeouts and finished fifth with a 2.70 ERA.

His record was 12-9, but the Astros averaged only 2.4 runs in his losses and no-decisions. He made 33 starts and worked 216 2/3 innings, totals no Orioles pitcher approached. It goes without saying he will be the Astros' starter Opening Day.

"I thought he was Cy Young material last year, honestly," Astros manager Art Howe said. "He was 12-9 for a last-place club. If we could have given him a little more run support, he would have been close to 18-20 wins. In 33 starts, I remember only two bad ones. I don't know if any starter in baseball can say that."

The scary thing is, Harnisch only figures to get better. His mechanics keep improving, and in the past three seasons he reduced his walks per nine innings from 5.57 to 4.10 to 3.45. Last year Harnisch walked 83, the fourth highest total in the NL. This year his goal is to reduce that to 50.

His breakthrough resulted from a major adjustment in his windup last spring, when he returned to raising his hands over his head instead of keeping them tucked closely at his side, as he was instructed by former Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson.

Harnisch now claims it was actually former manager Frank Robinson who instigated the switch, and also recalls Robinson "throwing his arms up in the dugout" during fits of impatience.

"If I pitched a great game, it was, 'Well, I expected it out of him,' " Harnisch said. "If I pitched a bad game, it was, 'He can't pitch here with one pitch.' "

Robinson, now Orioles assistant general manager, declined to address Harnisch's criticisms directly, but said, "Maybe we didn't foresee how quickly he'd come, how good he'd be. We knew he was a talent. We didn't know he'd be the type of pitcher he was last year, and looks like he'll be for a few years."

Indeed, Harnisch is hardly satisfied with last season -- "A lot of times," he said, "I was just getting by." He's working to develop better control of his fastball. He's still improving his slider. And he's refining a split-fingered changeup.

He wants to pitch at 208 pounds -- down from 218 -- and the Astros delight in his enthusiastic approach. During early spring practices, Harnisch sprinted from one workout station to another. The other five pitchers in his group had no choice but to follow.

On Saturday he worked six innings in a Double-A game to remain on schedule for Opening Day. Astros catcher Scott Servais volunteered to watch, and Harnisch sought input from him after every inning. In three regular exhibition starts he's 0-1 with an 0.90 ERA.

Astros pitching coach Bob Cluck said, "He's so far ahead of last spring, it's incredible."

Meanwhile, Finley is rapidly developing into another Brett Butler, and Schilling still could turn into another Rob Dibble.

It sure would be nice if Glenn Davis had a big year.

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