Florida pitching winds up hopes, but foes better, too

ORIOLES SPRINGING FORTH WITH OPTIMISM

April 05, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

Their new home is ready. Now, the only question is whether the new-look Orioles have come home to roost or to roast.

The heady optimism of spring is all about them. The starting rotation is both new and improved. The starting lineup has some pop and maybe even a little speed. The exhibition season has been one pleasant surprise after another. If only the regular season could go so well, then the team that went from "Why not?" three years ago to "Why bother?" in 1991 might be ready for prime time in October.

Not so fast. The exhibition season is one thing, the regular season another. The Orioles are better than last year -- that much should be obvious regardless of the intensity of the competition -- but it is still too early to tell if they are good enough to make any kind of legitimate run at the American League East title.

The Toronto Blue Jays appear to be improved, too, and they won the division by seven games last year. The Boston Red Sox should be better, and they finished 17 games ahead of the Orioles in 1991. The top two contenders both added a marquee name to their starting rotations. World Series MVP Jack Morris joined a Toronto pitching staff that may have been the best in the division to begin with. Left-hander Frank Viola has joined a Red Sox rotation that already featured the best starting pitcher in baseball (Roger Clemens).

The Orioles decided they could not afford a sure thing, so they gambled on Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis, two veteran pitchers with a lot to prove. If they can prove it all year, this could be a very interesting season. If they cannot, the novelty of the new stadium will be all that stands between the Orioles and a dismal summer.

But, if spring training is any indication, there is reason for hope. The pitching was superb, from Ben McDonald to Bob Milacki to Mike Mussina to Jose Mesa and even to some guys whose last names don't start with an M. The club was one of the winningest teams of spring, which is just what the manager ordered when he arrived in Sarasota, Fla., six weeks ago.

"The bottom line is, we have the capability, the talent," manager John Oates said. "If these kids who we don't have a book on, if they play to their capabilities -- not career years, just to their capabilities -- we've got a chance to have an outstanding year. We have some talent here."

No one disputes that. McDonald was one of the most highly touted college pitchers in history. Mussina, the club's top draft choice in 1990, might be even better. Both of them have pitched well this spring, but who hasn't?

"The thing that encourages me," Oates said, "is that we can send these pitchers out there back to back to back. They can make a mistake and get away with it, because they have some stuff."

The 1991 rotation couldn't get away with anything. Left-hander Jeff Ballard was a finesse pitcher who was still trying to shake the aftereffects of double elbow surgery. Dave Johnson didn't have enough velocity to sneak a mistake pitch past anyone. Jeff Robinson wasn't getting anyone out. Roy Smith won four of his first five games after joining the rotation in May, but he didn't scare anyone either. McDonald and Mesa had their moments, but neither was consistent enough to stop the bleeding.

Milacki was the only one to pitch with any consistency from April to October, but he was fortunate to escape with a winning record (10-9). The club finally revamped the rotation in late July, adding Mussina and test-driving left-hander Arthur Rhodes. The results were encouraging enough to convince Oates and general manager Roland Hemond that the youth movement was headed in the right direction. The club just needed a solid veteran starter to provide leadership and stability.

Enter Sutcliffe, who has the track record to command the respect of the youthful nucleus of the rotation and the personality to alter the chemistry of the entire pitching staff. If he can rebound successfully from two years of shoulder problems, the Orioles do have a chance to climb back up the division ladder.

The bullpen has suffered a couple of setbacks. Left-hander Jim Poole will have to start the season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, and Gregg Olson has been bothered by a small cut on his pitching hand, but relief was not a major problem last year and is not expected to be a weakness in '92.

Run support probably will not be a problem either, not with first baseman Glenn Davis back in the lineup full-time and Cal Ripken still swinging the same productive bat that made him the first player from a losing team ever to win the American League Most Valuable Player award.

Davis appears to have overcome the freak neck injury that limited him to 49 games last year, though he still must prove that he can be the dominant offensive force he was in the National League before two years of injuries. He flexed his muscles on a couple of occasions this spring, but did not overwhelm anyone with his production.

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