If starter is hurtin', O's are uncertain

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 16, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If the Orioles had one more starting pitcher, they'd be a reasonable pick to win the division. Instead, they're one injury away from taking a major step backward.

The problem isn't the lack of a fifth starter. The problem is that the fifth starter would become the fourth starter if Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald or Arthur Rhodes got hurt.

The chances of that happening? Hate to say it, but probably pretty good. The Orioles are counting on each of their Big Four to make 30 starts. That's a dangerous assumption in today's game.

Only two teams had four 30-game starters last season -- Atlanta and Montreal. Sutcliffe, McDonald and Mussina gave the Orioles three such pitchers. Club officials figure that Rhodes, in his first full season, will make four.

The flaw in the theory is that it presumes everyone will stay healthy. Last season, the Orioles placed only three pitchers on the disabled list, all of them relievers. It's doubtful they'll get that lucky again.

True, every team is in the same predicament, but the Orioles are in a more perilous position than others. It appears they'll be unable to trade for a quality (read: expensive) pitcher until Eli Jacobs sells the club.

Think about it: The perfect solution would have been to re-sign left-hander Craig Lefferts, who can either start or relieve. But Lefferts signed with Texas for the relatively modest sum of $1.1 million.

Why did the Orioles pass at that price? Because, according to club officials, it would have cost them the chance to acquire Harold Baines. Jacobs, keeping the payroll at a minimum for prospective buyers, apparently was not willing to splurge for two $1.1 million salaries.

The choice of Baines over Lefferts reflects the Orioles' shifting priorities -- they made the opposite decision last August, trading for Lefferts rather than a run producer. It also reflects their growing confidence in minor-league left-handers Brad Pennington and John O'Donoghue.

Neither has spent a full season at Triple-A, but assistant general manager Doug Melvin isn't ruling out the possibility of both making the club. For one thing, they gained additional experience in the Arizona fall league. For another, they'd be inheriting low-pressure roles.

Pennington, the wild thing with the 95-mph fastball, wouldn't close games as Gregg Olson did as a rookie -- he'd be a middle-inning reliever. O'Donoghue wouldn't be thrust into the rotation like Ben McDonald -- he'd be the fifth starter.

Indeed, the fifth starter will be needed only twice in April and, ideally, only 25 times all season. That's why the Orioles would prefer Mark Williamson to win the job in spring training. O'Donoghue could keep taking his regular turn at Triple-A, then join the club in May or June.

Forget about Steve Searcy, Jamie Moyer and the other minor-league free agents; they were signed to fill the Triple-A roster, nothing more. And forget about the Orioles trading for a quality veteran; they can't take on a large salary, and, frankly, they don't want anyone that good.

Simply put, the job of the fifth starter is to pitch enough innings to keep the bullpen rested. The problems begin when he gets knocked out early, placing added strain on the relievers and forcing the Nos. 1 and 2 starters to pitch deeper into games.

As Melvin says: "If the fifth starter has more wins than losses, he's not your fifth starter, he's your No. 3 or 4." Oakland's fifth starters went 12-13 last season, Toronto's 13-19. And those are the two teams that met in the American League Championship Series.

The difference is, Toronto traded for David Cone when it needed pitching help down the stretch, while Oakland acquired Jeff Russell and Bobby Witt. Say McDonald got hurt in spring training. With the sale pending, both Williamson and O'Donoghue might crack the Orioles' rotation.

Yes, there's always the possibility the club could steal another Alan Mills in spring training, but such one-sided trades are few and far between. Basically, Roland Hemond and Co. will spend the entire spring holding their breath.

"There's no doubt you'd feel more comfortable with another pitcher," Melvin said. "But it just means we'll have to make sure we stay healthy."

Sutcliffe is 36, and he threw 3,802 pitches last season, the fifth-highest total in the majors. McDonald, Mussina and Rhodes are young and strong, but that doesn't guarantee they'll make 30 starts.

Most teams would love to have a foursome of that caliber, but most teams aren't this close to winning a division. The Orioles are counting on their rotation's staying injury-free. History shows it's not a healthy gamble.

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