Decisions, decisions: O's can't go wrong

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 30, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Two years ago, Craig Worthington and Leo Gomez played to a virtual standoff in spring training. The Orioles couldn't decide which third baseman was better. So, both made the club.

That is what will happen with Mark Williamson and Fernando Valenzuela. The two veterans have combined to allow two runs in 32 innings. The only logical solution is to keep both and worry about the rest later.

The odd man out would be rookie left-hander Brad Pennington, but not for long. Pennington almost certainly would be promoted when manager Johnny Oates adds an 11th pitcher in May. In the meantime, Oates would use Valenzuela as a spot starter and second left-handed reliever.

Anthony Telford? Oates lists him among the four pitchers competing for the final two spots, but that's only because the Orioles are trying to trade him. Valenzuela's emergence doomed Telford, not that the career minor-leaguer ever had much of a chance.

Oates could keep everyone but Telford by carrying 11 pitchers, but he said Sunday night that there is a "better than 80 percent chance" he will keep only 10. That way, he can preserve an extra spot for a bench player, probably outfielder Jack Voigt.

No club official will confirm the Pennington-to-Rochester scenario, but it doesn't take a genius to figure this out. Pennington, 23, has done everything the Orioles asked this spring, pitching 7 2/3 scoreless innings. He's just losing out to more experienced pitchers, that's all.

The extra work at Triple-A won't hurt Pennington, who has pitched only 39 innings at that level. The Orioles can tell him to be patient and assure him that he still figures prominently in their plans. Pennington wouldn't dare complain. He started last season at Single-A.

True, the Orioles could trade Williamson to clear a spot for Pennington, but that wouldn't make sense. It isn't often that a team can boast of pitching depth. Besides, what would the Orioles get for Williamson, another right fielder?

No, Williamson stays, but as a reliever, not the fifth starter. Valenzuela has been a starter his entire career. He's experienced, and he's accomplished. Heck, the way the Orioles are talking, he might be a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.

"Who's to say he couldn't be another Tommy John?" Oates asked, referring to the former major-league pitcher who revived his career after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery. "Who's to say Fernando couldn't come in here and win 80 games the next five years?"

That's pushing it, but whatever the club's motivations for signing Valenzuela in the wake of the Fred Ulhman Sr. controversy, it's pointless to debate them now. Get ready for the next wave of Fernandomania. At the moment, Valenzuela looks better than Craig Lefferts did last September.

"I'm not going to recommend letting him go right now -- not until he gives up a run anyway," Oates said, laughing. "I don't care if he's pitching in minor-league camp. Someone who hasn't given up a run in 14 innings, you've got to take a look at him."

So, that's what the Orioles will do. If Valenzuela fails, Oates always can return to his original plan, using Williamson as his fifth starter and Pennington as his second left-handed reliever. But if Valenzuela succeeds, a solid pitching staff will be that much better.

Ideally, Oates would prefer true balance in his bullpen, instead of a spot starter doubling as his second left-hander. But if the Orioles are considering Williamson as a starter, they obviously believe that he can retire left-handed hitters. Thus, Oates can match up accordingly, and preserve Jim Poole for the late innings.

Granted, it might seem ludicrous to go through all this trouble simply to carry an extra bench player. But it would be even more ludicrous to carry 11 pitchers with the April schedule so light.

Oates' flexibility already will be limited, because the Orioles plan to carry Rule V draft pick Sherman Obando, and all Obando can do is hit. Oates won't need pinch hitters with this strong a lineup. He will, however, need pinch runners.

Mark McLemore will be one, and Voigt would be another. Voigt isn't especially fast, but he's a smart base runner who averaged 10 stolen bases the past five seasons in the minors. In the late innings, he'd be preferable to six Orioles -- Harold Baines, Glenn Davis, Leo Gomez, Chris Hoiles, Chito Martinez and David Segui.

Get the picture?

Jack Voigt makes this team.

So do Mark Williamson and Fernando Valenzuela.

tTC

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