Pitching problems beginning to mount for Orioles

June 16, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

CLEVELAND -- The situation is not critical, but a number of cracks have developed in the Orioles pitching staff, and club officials are trying to figure out how to repair them.

The focus was on right-hander Jose Mesa, who has lost seven of nine decisions, but he is but one of several reasons why the club cannot assume that its early-season pitching turnaround will be permanent.

Fellow starter Bob Milacki is struggling again, and a drop in velocity is raising questions about his arm strength. Left-handed reliever Mike Flanagan cannot seem to get anyone out, which has left manager Johnny Oates with little bullpen flexibility.

Their problems were magnified by an ugly weekend in Detroit in which all three of them contributed mightily to a pair of frustrating losses.

Oates stopped short of saying any changes are imminent, but that may only be because there is not enough organizational depth to solve anything. Mesa is the only one whose place on the roster appears to be in any immediate peril, and even that is questionable. He still is penciled in to make his next scheduled start seven days from now in Milwaukee.

Mesa has won four times in his last 26 starts, dating back to May of last year, but he has thrown just well enough to confuse the situation. It isn't easy to give up on a pitcher who is throwing a 93-mph fastball.

"Jose has struggled and a lot of people want the guy's head," Oates said. "He hasn't had a whole lot of success winning and losing, but if we had done some things differently, he could easily have five or six wins."

The trouble is, Mesa is 2-7 with a 5.11 ERA in his first 10 starts, and there comes a time when his bottom line has to take precedence over his top-end velocity. But when?

That apparently depends on the options available to the club. Right-hander Storm Davis has to be a candidate to replace Mesa in the starting rotation, but the decision goes deeper than that. The bullpen is not so solid that the loss of a dependable set-up man might not hurt the club more than the gain of a new fifth starter would help.

"We've thought about that a lot," Oates said, "but what do you do in the bullpen?"

The answer to that question might be found in Rochester, N.Y., where left-hander Jim Poole is beginning to build up strength for his eventual return to the major-league roster. His fastball was clocked at 75 mph a couple of weeks ago, but he has shown enough progress in two relief appearances for the Triple-A Red Wings to warrant speculation that he will rejoin the big-league club in Baltimore this weekend.

If Poole comes back and pitches effectively, he'll move back into a late-inning set-up role and allow Flanagan to return to the middle relief role to which he grew accustomed last year. Davis would then be free to take over the spot starter job and the club would be free to move Mesa out of the rotation.

That would go a long way toward shoring up the pitching staff, but it would not solve everything. Pitching coach Dick Bosman has been working on the sidelines with Milacki, whose 5.23 ERA belies a significant drop in the velocity of his fastball.

Milacki's fastball was clocked at 83 mph over the weekend, or about 5 mph below what it was during his impressive rookie season in 1989. He is 5-4 in his first 13 starts, but club officials see trouble ahead if adjustments are not made to improve his pop. Mesa may represent the most pressing concern in the starting rotation, but he is not alone.

"I think they are both issues right now," Oates said. "We've got to get better in both spots. We've got to continue to improve if we are to continue to be competitive."

The minor-league alternatives are not plentiful. Right-hander Richie Lewis has pitched well for the Red Wings and Anthony Telford remains a viable option, but neither is projected to be a big winner in the major leagues. The organization seems committed to keeping promising Arthur Rhodes at Triple-A all year.

The answer may lie outside the organization, but anything more than a minor deal is very unlikely at this point in the season. Oates won't discount the value of a modest trade -- surprising Alan Mills came to the club in just such a deal -- but nothing appears to be imminent.

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