Fernando worth the no-risk look

JOHN EISENBERG

March 01, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Let's just say, for the sake of gaining the appropriate perspective on the signing of Fernando Valenzuela, that the Orioles had forgotten to mention his name in making the announcement.

If they had just said that they were bringing into camp a 32-year-old pitcher who had not won a major-league game in three years, exited with a sore shoulder and had barely bettered .500 in the Mexican League last year, would anyone have cared? Even noticed?

Of course not. The general rule is that a pitcher who isn't regularly blowing away the Cordoba Coffeegrowers won't help you much in a pennant race with the Blue Jays.

Insert Valenzuela's name into the story, though, and everyone sits up and pays attention. It is one of baseball's magical names of the past quarter-century. A potbellied lefty who glanced to the sky during his windup, as if asking for his devilish screwball to be divinely guided, he won 141 games for the Dodgers from 1980 to 1990 and became a hero in Mexico. He was Fernando, the one name more than sufficing.

But at the rate of baseball evolution, even his memorable career already qualifies as ancient history. Mike Mussina has thrown every pitch of his pro life, going back to Double-A Hagerstown 32 months ago, since Valenzuela's last major-league win. So, why are the Orioles trying to fit such a faded star into the vacant No. 5 hole in their rotation? They certainly don't need to sell tickets. Why try?

Here's why: Why not?

There's no downside to taking this chance. None. It can't possibly hurt. If the rumors are true about Fernando's shoulder being sound again, he just might be better than any of the alternatives the club has drummed up since deciding not to spend $1 million to re-sign the capable Craig Lefferts and instead cut a corner at the bottom of the rotation.

And if he proves too old and slow and every bit a bust, what has been lost? Virtually nothing. Any substantive salary he would get is dependent on his making the team. "It's worth taking the shot," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said yesterday.

If Fernando does make the club and pitches credibly, the front office will have filled an important hole with spectacular resourcefulness. "Can you imagine this on top of [Rick] Sutcliffe a year ago?" manager Johnny Oates said. "That would be something."

The club will have to play the situation particularly smart, though. It will test the front office. Fernando probably will look Cy Young-sharp down here. He has been pitching this winter while the competition has rested, and has the combination of junk and wiles to embarrass spring hitters. But will that translate into summer success? That could be a tough call.

In any case, this is not just a repeat of Jim Palmer's spring comeback a couple of years ago. Palmer hadn't faced major-league hitters in five years. He had just been elected to the Hall of Fame. He was 45 years old and dreaming. Fernando may be older than the 32 he insists he is, but he is much younger than Palmer and, importantly, has never stopped pitching since the Dodgers released him.

He failed in a 1991 comeback with the Angels and went back to Mexico, where he reportedly has thrown some 260 innings in winter and summer leagues in the past year. That total, which would seem to indicate that his shoulder is finally healthy, persuaded the Orioles to take the shot.

"He's sound," GM Roland Hemond said, "and he knows how to pitch. Why not see if he can help us?"

Particularly when the alternatives at No. 5 are a rookie (John O'Donoghue), a career reliever being converted to the rotation (Mark Williamson) and a few other unlikelies (Anthony Telford, Jamie Moyer, Mike Cook, Steve Searcy).

"I'm going into this with a completely open mind," Oates said. "He'll certainly get his [chance] here. It's interesting. If he can get out major-league hitters again, I want to make sure he does it for the Orioles and not the Brewers or Yankees."

HTC The idea is not to get too excited, though. The signing succeeds mostly in illuminating the desperation of the Orioles' search for a fifth starter. Remember, the Orioles aren't the only team scouting the Mexican League. A lot of other teams passed on Fernando.

But baseball is a game that sometimes makes no sense whatsoever. There are a thousand reasons Fernando shouldn't make it. Age. Injuries. Too much time off from the bigs. It will probably be too much for him to overcome. But it might not be. As the famous saying more or less goes, stuff happens.

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