ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If there is a controversy brewing, Storm Davis apparently wants no part of it. He is pitching well enough to earn a place in the Orioles' regular-season starting rotation, but he refuses to stake a claim to anything more than a locker at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"I just want to wear the uniform," Davis said yesterday, just minutes after he turned in another solid performance in the team's 5-2 exhibition victory over the New York Yankees. "I just want to play in Baltimore. I'll pitch relief if they want. I'll start. I'll do whatever they want me to do."
This is not entirely consistent with the comments he made when he was traded to the Orioles for reserve catcher Bob Melvin in December. He said then that he was looking forward to the opportunity to be a full-time starter again. He had been dropped into a middle-relief role in his second season with the Kansas City Royals, and he didn't particularly enjoy it, but there he was yesterday saying he would like it just fine in Baltimore.
That is just fine with manager John Oates, who is going to have to make some difficult pitching decisions during the next couple of weeks. Davis was projected to be in his five-man starting rotation when spring training began, but the outstanding performance of 25-year-old Jose Mesa has changed the pitching landscape.
Mesa is out of options and his arm was not built -- or rebuilt, in this case -- for a relief role. The Orioles are going to have to find him a place in the starting rotation or find him some other organization to play in. Davis has done nothing to pitch himself out of the rotation, but he has relief experience and could start the season in a long relief/spot starter role.
He started yesterday's game and pitched four solid innings, giving up just a run on two hits and striking out three. He has given up two earned runs in 10 1/3 innings of exhibition work.
"That felt weird," Davis said. "That was my first start in a while. I had a little jitters. It was the first time in about 40-some games that I came in to start the game. [Rick] Dempsey and I really worked well today. He didn't even get mad when I shook him off a couple of times. I guess that means I'm a veteran pitcher now."
No one has said that he will not be the fifth starter, but it seems only logical that he will start the season in the bullpen if Mesa keeps piling up the scoreless innings. Davis apparently can see the writing on the clubhouse wall, because he has changed his tune during the past few weeks. Oates still is saying the same things he has said all spring.
"They [the pitchers] are going to make that decision for me," Oates said. "Whether he says he's happy to go to the bullpen or wants to start, I have to make that decision. But that's what we want here -- a guy who is thinking about the team first, instead of 'I won't get my raise if I don't get 30 starts this year.' I think it's good for players to have desires of their own, but I don't want them to put their desires before the ballclub."
Davis' first desire, and he has stated it many times in recent years, was to return to Baltimore. He is coming off a pair of disappointing seasons in Kansas City, and he has worked hard this spring to get his career moving in the right direction again. Now, he's perfectly willing to let Oates determine his job description, but he has made no secret of his desire to become a full-time starter again.
"John and Bos [pitching coach Dick Bosman] have talked a little," he said. "I think I know what they want me to do. They haven't said I'm not going to be [a starter], but I don't have a problem with that. A spot starter is more or less what I was with the Royals. That's OK. God blessed me with an arm that can throw two innings one day and come back to throw three the next day."
In a sense, Davis might be cursed by that versatility. Mesa underwent a Tommy John-type tendon transplant a few years ago, so the club is hesitant to use him in any role that would require him to work on an irregular schedule. Davis, who is only a couple of years removed from a 19-victory season with the Oakland Athletics, made 42 relief appearances after losing his place in the Royals rotation last year.
If the season were to begin today, it seems likely that Mesa would be the fifth starter and Davis and fellow veteran Dennis Rasmussen would start in the bullpen as long relievers. But it probably has not been lost on the club that Mesa started the 1991season in the major-league rotation and pitched very well in April, only to fall out of favor in a hurry. Either Davis or Rasmussen could move into the rotation if that happened again.
Davis and Mesa are not playing on a level field. Since Mesa is out of options, he must make the club or be placed on waivers. The way he has pitched, he would almost certainly be claimed by another club. There is more flexibility with Davis, though the club may find it painful to pay $2.3 million this year for a long reliever.