SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- Concern and worry are words that Johnny Oates likes to keep out of his baseball vocabulary. So don't expect the Orioles manager to use either as he assesses his team for the 1994 season.
Those words are reserved for life's more pressing issues, not for a kids game played by adults.
However, Oates readily admits there's one area involving the Orioles that draws his attention. It's the one that will be spotlighted throughout spring training, which starts today when 26 pitchers and catchers have their first workout.
"When I was rehired [last November], I said my top three priorities were pitching, pitching and pitching," said Oates. "That hasn't changed.
"We've added a lot of offense, but our pitching is almost status quo. We picked up Sid Fernandez, Lee Smith and Mark Eichhorn and lost Rick Sutcliffe, Gregg Olson and Fernando Valenzuela.
"Whether the three we got are better than the three we lost, I'm not sure. It's still an area we've got to work on."
Although his top candidates for the rotation -- Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Fernandez -- are clearly defined, a lack of depth among the starters appears to be the Orioles' most glaring weakness.
"We've got three who we're counting on heavily," said Oates. "But I think there's still some big questions.
"Can we expect Jamie Moyer to win 12 games for us [as he did last year]? I'm not sure. Is Arthur Rhodes ready to step up? We have to find out."
It is the lack of available experienced pitchers that would concern Oates -- if, of course, he allowed himself to worry about such issues. He pushed hard for the return of right-hander Rick Sutcliffe, who opted instead for a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"We just don't have enough veterans to fall back on," said Oates"That's why we'll continue to talk to teams about [trading for] pitching.
If we were in a rebuilding year, it would be OK to just run the youngsters out there. I was impressed with what I saw of Mike Oquist and Kevin McGehee last year.
"But this is not a growth year. I look at this as a year to win," saiOates.
General manager Roland Hemond agrees that depth amonstarting pitchers remains a priority.
However, Hemond doesn't seem to share Oates' urgency about fortifying the staff in general or finding a leader to replace Sutcliffe in the clubhouse in particular.
"I feel he [Sutcliffe] did it so well that many of our players picked up from it," said Hemond.
"He did a great job providing veteran leadership, direction ansupport," acknowledged Hemond. "I'm grateful, as I'm sure many of our players are, for the time he spent with us."
But the GM left the clear impression that it was time for the Orioles to move on, and that some of the younger pitchers are ready to assume more responsibility.
Hemond dismissed the suggestion that the Orioles are one injury, or one subpar performance away from being in trouble with their rotation.
"That's why these youngsters are here in camp," Hemond said. "McGehee led the International League in earned run average last year, and John O'Donoghue and Oquist have done a good job.
"You're always trying to develop [young players] and there are just so many innings to go around during spring training," Hemond said. "If the veterans use up 30 or 35 innings and don't make your club, then you don't have others ready. They deserve to get an opportunity.
"The depth of the rotation is something we're aware of and we'll be scouting other pitchers this spring."
Among them, to the surprise of some, may be Valenzuela. Hemond said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of Valenzuela rejoining the Orioles in camp if the veteran left-hander doesn't sign with another team.
"Why not?" Hemond responded when asked if the Orioles would consider bringing back Valenzuela, who was 8-10 with a 4.94 ERA last season. "I did mention it to [Valenzuela's agent] Dick Moss. I told him if nothing happens to let us know."
Valenzuela declined the Orioles' offer of arbitration last December and became an unrestricted free agent. Hemond said yesterday that he thought Valenzuela was close to a deal several weeks ago and expressed surprise that he's still unsigned.
Hemond feels he's in a position of strength when it comes to possible trades. "Clearly, other teams know that because of the players we've added, we have depth that didn't exist before," said Hemond.
There's no question the Orioles made the most dramatic changes in baseball in the off-season.
And, even though they won't be favored to win the American League East, which includes the two-time World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays, contending may no longer be enough for the Orioles. The expectation is to win, and nobody understands that more than Oates.
Which is why he'd still like to have another starting pitcher.
* Catcher Jeff Tackett signed his 1994 contract yesterday, leaving the Orioles with 10 of the 40 players on their major-league roster unsigned.
Pitchers Mussina, Rhodes, Jim Poole, Brad Pennington and Armando Benitez, outfielders Jack Voigt, Damon Buford, Sherman Obando and Jeffrey Hammonds and infielder Manny Alexander have yet to agree to terms.