O's pitching has depth, not dearth

March 06, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- For all their talk of acquiring another starting pitcher, the surprise of the spring is that the Orioles might not need to look outside the organization if their rotation suddenly grows thin.

The emergences of Barry Manuel and Brian DuBois have increased the pitching depth to the point where manager Johnny Oates probably could use a reliever as his fifth starter, especially early in the season.

It probably won't be necessary -- Arthur Rhodes threw two shutout innings in his first exhibition outing yesterday, and Jamie Moyer has looked the sharpest of any pitcher in camp, according to pitching coach Dick Bosman.

Still, left-hander Sid Fernandez's biceps tendinitis is a reminder that an injury can wreck the blueprint at any time. Fernandez's problem is nothing serious, but he'll get two extra days of rest before his first exhibition start.

The Orioles would be in obvious trouble if they lost Fernandez, their No. 3 starter. All Manuel and DuBois can do is increase the combinations for Oates when he assembles his Opening Day pitching staff.

It's early, so the possibilities appear limitless. Alan Mills will make his second straight start Tuesday. Oates warned that it means "absolutely nothing," but three weeks from now, who's to say the idea of Mills as a swingman won't be appealing?

Mills is starting again only because Fernandez is hurting, and because the other pitchers scheduled to work Tuesday are relievers. He's also assured of facing major-league hitters in the early innings, the better to prepare him for the season.

What's unusual is that Mills is scheduled to pitch three innings -- longer than in any of his Grapefruit League outings last spring. It's not inconceivable that Oates wants to stretch him out, keeping his options open for later.

The structure of the bullpen is undetermined, and Mills can fill virtually any role, so Oates is operating from a position of strength. Heck, he could use Mills as a starter all spring, then return him to the bullpen Opening Day.

This way, Mills represents possible insurance -- if someone gets hurt, or if the Orioles send Rhodes to Triple-A Rochester. DuBois, Manuel, Mike Oquist and even Mark Williamson also could be candidates for the fifth starter's job.

Rhodes is the central figure in this drama. He threw 39 pitches in two innings yesterday, allowing two hits and walking one. Oates and Bosman were encouraged, but they still want to see him work faster and throw more strikes.

The Orioles badly want Rhodes to earn his spot in the rotation after resisting trade offers for him all winter. But they don't want him to grow too comfortable, and the semblance of competition -- real or imagined -- might push him.

Even if Rhodes pitches well this spring, it might be best for him to open at Rochester. The Orioles' fifth starter will pitch only once before April 23 and 12 times before the All-Star break. Rhodes might be better off pitching every fifth day.

Oates figures to open with a 10-man staff. Without Rhodes, he could carry four starters and six relievers. Mills or another reliever could take the three spot starts in April, and Rhodes could return when Oates expands to an 11-man staff, probably by May 1.

That would enable to Oates to keep three right-handed middle-inning relievers -- Mark Eichhorn, plus two from a group consisting of Manuel, Williamson and Todd Frohwirth. He also would have room for two left-handed relievers -- Jim Poole and either Brad Pennington or DuBois.

Imagine if Rhodes could remain at Rochester until the All-Star break without the Orioles compromising their bullpen. Rhodes would gain momentum against Triple-A hitters, then return to the majors when the inevitable need for another starter arose in the second half.

Actually, the ideal scenario is for Rhodes to make the team and become a 20-game winner. But why rush it if there's enough quality pitching around him? Rhodes would have no choice but to accept a demotion -- he has one minor-league option remaining. The Orioles could assure him it was only temporary.

The better Manuel and DuBois perform, the more interesting the equation, assuming all of the top pitchers stay healthy. It's early, but the Orioles are in a fairly enviable position. Their biggest rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays, are desperate to add another starter.

The Blue Jays are thought to be pursuing trades for Houston's Greg Swindell and Minnesota's Kevin Tapani, and maybe even California's Chuck Finley. They need a No. 2 starter to fit behind Juan Guzman and ahead of Dave Stewart, Pat Hentgen and Todd Stottlemyre.

Two weeks ago, the questions surrounding the Orioles' rotation seemed nearly as urgent, and two weeks from now, they might be again. At the moment, all is quiet. Let the Blue Jays chase Swindell and Tapani. Maybe the Orioles don't need to make a trade, after all.

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