This season, Orioles want payoff pitch from Rhodes

February 19, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- The one season you can judge, the one Arthur Rhodes went the distance, was 1992. He was 22 then, and his Rochester/Baltimore statistics were comparable to Pete Harnisch's and Curt Schilling's at the same stage.

"This guy did the same thing Harnisch and Schilling did," Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin told other club officials this winter. "If we give him up in a trade, are we giving up another Harnisch or Schilling?"

It was a terrifying thought, and GM Roland Hemond hammered home the point, arguing that if Rhodes and Brad Pennington were with other clubs, the Orioles would covet them. Left-handers with 90-mph fastballs are hard to find -- and even harder to quit on.

That's why the Orioles were so adamant about keeping Rhodes -- they're looking for left-handed starters, as their signings of free agents Jamie Moyer and Sid Fernandez the past two years attest. But it's one thing to keep the faith and another for it to be rewarded.

Ideally, Rhodes will turn into this season's Ben McDonald, staying healthy, working 200 innings, realizing his potential. The difference is, Rhodes must overcome severe control problems while pitching for a team expected to win its division. McDonald never faced those pressures in his development.

Rhodes, 24, was drafted a year ahead of McDonald in 1988, but as a high school senior, not a college junior. Given that he's two years behind McDonald, he should be on the verge of a breakthrough. But, because he has been injured so often, the Orioles can't be sure.

Only once in five pro seasons has Rhodes pitched more than 153 innings -- in '92, when he was a combined 13-11 with a 3.67 ERA and 192 strikeouts in 196 innings. That created big expectations for last season, but Rhodes got off to a poor start, then injured his knee in Detroit, requiring surgery on May 18.

He returned in late July, but never found his rhythm. Now he's healthy, and minor-league pitching coordinator Tom Brown is raving about his control. Rhodes summed up his entire career before yesterday's opening workout: "If I get the ball over, I'm fine. I'm in business. I'm ready to go."

Rhodes lives in Sarasota, and he spent the past six weeks throwing to Brown at a public recreation park in nearby Venice. Together, they changed the grip on Rhodes' changeup, improved his sinking fastball and refined his cut fastball -- the pitch Dick Bosman taught him, the pitch that helped launch McDonald.

"I got to the point where I could catch him with no gear -- no catcher's gear, no mask," said Brown, who was Rhodes' pitching coach at Double-A in 1990. "This could be the year. He's really come a long way."

The difference, Brown said, is maturity. In '90, Rhodes was reluctant to accept a promotion to Double-A because he didn't want to leave his friends. Now, he's building a home for his wife, Kerry, 4-year-old son, Trey, and 3-month-old daughter, Jade.

"Arthur is starting to grow up," Brown said. "He's starting to understand how far he can go in this game. Nobody in baseball ever doubted his talent level. It's just a matter of when the light would turn on. I think it's turned on now."

Still, Rhodes has thrown only 216 major-league innings, less than half of McDonald's total a year ago. Manager Johnny Oates couldn't live with his inexperience last season -- Rhodes completed seven innings only twice in 17 starts. And now Oates is saying, "This is not a year to sit back, wait and develop."

For that reason, the Orioles have discussed moving Rhodes to the bullpen, a possibility that would become more likely if they traded for another pitcher. Their fifth starter will make only 12 starts before the All-Star break. If Jamie Moyer is the No. 4, Rhodes could open the season in Rochester.

It's not a far-fetched scenario -- Rhodes has one minor-league option remaining, and he'd go along with a demotion, as long as it was temporary. "If they say a month, I'll say OK," he said. "But I won't go down for the whole year. I know I'm better than that."

The Orioles think so, too, but now Rhodes must prove himself once and for all. He's not going to be another Harnisch or Schilling and attain stardom with another team. Like McDonald, he'll either make his career or break it in Baltimore.

"We saw what he was capable of doing at the end of the '92 season, and it was pretty darn impressive," McDonald said. "I hear some people are starting to question him, starting to give up on him. But let him go a full year, and we'll see what happens."

The Orioles would love to find out.

They've kept the faith.

They want their reward.

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