We'll have to wait to rate Orioles' pitching

March 15, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sorry, but the answers scheduled for today's column have been postponed. This is spring training. It's too early for answers. They're all at the beach.

But as the Orioles establish themselves as the official flops of early spring, sinking to the bottom of the heap with 0-21 authority, it's not too early to ask a few questions.

So, let's go ahead and cut right to the biggie: Do the Orioles really have enough pitching to beat out the Blue Jays and Yankees?

It's not clear that they do. And not just because their pitchers are getting hammered down here as consistently as the noonday sun is hot.

Even before the first tobacco juice splatter hit the dirt in mid-February, it was clear that the Orioles' pitching would be their biggest obstacle.

That's not to say that the staff won't wind up among the best. It could happen, easily, But the point is this: If something does go awry in this season of so much hope for the Orioles, it's going to be their pitching.

True, that deduction is due partly to a lack of apparent shortcomings in other areas. When Johnny Oates trots out his Opening Day lineup, as he did last night at Al Lang Stadium, it's clear that the offense, as advertised, will have more than enough whack.

With Mark McLemore (and his 72 RBIs in '93) batting eighth, and with Jeffrey Hammonds, the best prospect in baseball (according to Baseball America), batting ninth, it's hard to envision the offense getting hamstrung for long. Sure, there will be slumps. There always are slumps. They just won't last as long with so many potent bats stacked on top of each other.

The defense should be fine, too, even though Mike Devereaux is having a Less Than Excellent Adventure in right field this spring. But the infield might even be more adept defensively than last year. The outfielders can roam. No problem there.

That brings us to the pitching. As with most things in baseball, particularly this time of year, there are a couple of ways to view it.

It is easy enough to see the rotation having a boom year. Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald shape up as one of the best young one-twos in the bigs. Jamie Moyer has been the best starter in camp. Sid Fernandez has been a consistent winner for the Mets. Arthur Rhodes has all that talent.

But it is just as easy to pick apart that boom-year fantasy with questions.

MA Mussina was injured last year. Will he come back? McDonald is

barely better than a career .500 pitcher. Is is right to expect so much from him? Shouldn't the league begin adjusting to Moyer's diet of changeups? Fernandez is changing leagues, overweight, has a history of injuries and already has missed time this spring because of a sore shoulder. Rhodes is getting lit up again this spring and figures to start the year in Rochester. The club can't count on him.

And, at this point, there's no depth, no one behind these starters to step in when one can't go.

Which way will the rotation go from here? Mussina should be fine. McDonald, too. But otherwise: sorry, no answers, remember? It's certainly a question worth posing, though. And the bullpen shapes up as similarly uncertain.

Putting a positive spin on the bullpen's potential is easy. Lee Smith, the new closer, is throwing hard, easing any lingering doubts about his arm being thrown out. Jim Poole and Alan Mills look sharp. Between Mark Eichhorn, Todd Frohwirth, Mark Williamson, Barry Manuel and Brian DuBois, some decent middle relief should emerge.

But it's easy to shoot all sorts of holes in this blueprint. Smith is 36. How much longer can he keep it going? Poole, Mills and probably Eichhorn should be fine, but what about the rest? Frohwirth is getting hammered down here, Manuel was waived by the pitching-poor Rangers, Williamson is coming off a bad year and DuBois hasn't won a major-league game since 1990. At the very least, it's fair to be skeptical.

Then again, considering the diminished state of major-league pitching everywhere, perhaps it's possible for the club to get by with a less than solvent pitching staff. The Blue Jays managed just fine a year ago, and the Orioles' offense shapes up as similarly productive.

But with the Yankees in possession of the best pitching in the division now, making it a three-way race, the Orioles probably are going to need a lot of things to go right to keep up. Fernandez, Moyer and Smith are the arms to monitor. If they don't come through, the season will be a bust. If they do come through, the club should contend into October. As usual, it's impossible to tell what will happen. But what did you expect in March?

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