Orioles manager John Oates apparently likes a good mystery. He kept the makeup of his starting rotation a secret all spring, which is an indication of how much the pitching staff has changed for the better.
It was the first time the Orioles rotation has kept anyone in suspense since 1989.
The team finally had enough pitching depth to force a few hard choices, but the air of mystery will remain until the Orioles can shake off the residue of two very discouraging seasons. The spring has been very promising, but these kinds of promises have been broken before:
* Second-year starter Mike Mussina opened the spring with 10 1/3 hitless innings and was the most effective pitcher on the staff for much of the exhibition season.
* Ben McDonald remained injury and expectation free on the way to a 3-0 record and 1.89 ERA in Grapefruit League play.
* Bob Milacki, the most consistent pitcher of 1991, has been just as steady this spring.
* Rick Sutcliffe continued his comeback from shoulder surgery with a string of resourceful performances and left every reason ,, to believe that he will be healthy and productive all year.
* Storm Davis and Jose Mesa each pitched well enough to earn a place in the rotation, but there was only room for one of them.
No one could have expected so much to go right so soon, not after the way the rotation collapsed last year. General manager Roland Hemond spent the off-season turning the roster over, and the early returns have been extremely positive. The problem is, not one of those scoreless innings or exhibition victories will mean anything when the regular season begins.
"How much importance can you place on the success we've had this spring?" Oates said. "I don't know, but I know that we're better. We've got better arms. I know that we've got more depth. There were times last year when we were trying to pick 10 pitchers out of seven. It was a little more fun trying to pick 10 out of 14."
The bullpen was not a priority, though the club won't begin with the same five pitchers who ended the 1991 season in the bullpen. The rotation was everything, and for good reason. The starting pitcher blew up early in one out of four games last year, making it impossible for the Orioles to compete in a very soft American League East.
Hemond didn't exactly have a blank check to improve the situation, but he signed Sutcliffe and left-hander Dennis Rasmussen (who will begin the season at Triple-A Rochester) and acquired Davis for reserve catcher Bob Melvin. Jack Morris and Frank Viola ended up with other division contenders, which left room to wonder if the Orioles accomplished enough, but there is little question that they succeeded in shoring up the most vulnerable part of the club.
"On paper and in actuality, our pitching staff is better than it was a year ago," Oates said. "Now, we have to wait and see how much improved it is."
It would be difficult not to improve on 1991. The club fell behind by three or more runs in the first three innings 43 times last year and lost 39 of those games. That one statistic provided all the explanation that was necessary for the Orioles' sixth-place finish.
The blueprint for improvement included a new pitching coach -- Dick Bosman -- and the acquisition of some positive role models for the club's most promising young starters, but the budget did not allow for Morris or Viola. If the Chicago Cubs had not told Sutcliffe to pack his bags, the outlook for 1992 might be different.
PTC Sutcliffe is coming off two years of shoulder problems, but he is a proven veteran with an outstanding track record and the kind of personality that you don't often find for $1.2 million in today's free-agent market. He was a gamble, but Oates was looking for a hard-nosed competitor who wouldn't hesitate to pitch inside and wouldn't mind imparting his pitching philosophy on a few wide-eyed kids. Sutcliffe fit the job description perfectly.
"That's why we brought him in here," Oates said. "With his experience and his approach, he can't do anything but have a positive effect on our staff."
Shades of Mike Flanagan, who won a job in the bullpen last year and turned out to be a stabilizing influence on an otherwise youthful bullpen.
McDonald and the other young starters have found Sutcliffe very approachable, though this year's spring training arrangement made it difficult for Sutcliffe to be on hand when they were on the mound. On the days he didn't pitch, the club's workout schedule called for him to be at the Huggins/Stengel Complex while the exhibition games were taking place elsewhere.
"That was the tough part," he said. "By the time we finished in here [at the camp], the game would be half over," Sutcliffe said. "There were a couple of times when I split my workout just to get over there. I'd like to have seen more of the games, but that wasn't possible."