Even now, O's best move with Rhodes would be no move

April 22, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Once again, the trip to Arthur's World was anything but a vacation for the Orioles. But as for the growing clamor to pack him off somewhere, lose him in the mail, do something with him: chill, people, chill.

In an 11-8 loss to the Angels last night at Camden Yards, Arthur Rhodes threw 91 pitches in 4 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits, five runs and a booming homer. He left the mound to scattered boos. You're right, you've heard it all before, many times.

You're right, he looks not one whit improved from two years ago when he first appeared as Next Year's Star.

You're right, his 10.95 ERA sounds more like the price of a cheap weed-whacker than a genuine baseball statistic.

But none of that means that it's time for the Orioles to resort to drastic measures.

As a matter of fact, now is the time to leave Rhodes alone, give him the ball (and a pat on the rear) every five days. Then, and only then, can the club begin to discern if he is a paper phenom or the real deal.

Then, and only then, can Rhodes possibly begin to help the club by fulfilling the promise his left arm always has boasted.

In any case, it is still too soon, much too soon, to give up on him.

Maybe it seems that Rhodes has been around forever getting clanged, banged and bonged, but he has thrown only 228 major-league innings -- enough for one full season. His rookie season, basically.

Not enough time to prove anything, one way or the other. Not nearly.

Moreover, his innings have come in fits and coughs over a three-year span, in between walks and injuries and more walks, never in a routine for longer than two months.

How can the Orioles give up on him when he has never shown what he could do starting every fifth day for an entire season?

They can't, obviously, which is why they have refrained from pulling the trigger on a trade that could make them look brutally bad in five years.

Those screaming for his head now would be well advised to consider the example of another Orioles pitcher, Ben McDonald, currently seen in the role of This Year's Star.

When McDonald was 24, as Rhodes is now, he was beginning the '92 season with a 15-13 career record in 250 major-league innings -- numbers bearing a striking resemblance to Rhodes' right now. (Rhodes is 12-17.) He was giving up a ton of homers, pitching erratically, getting booed at home and being disdained as a No. 1 draft pick who wasn't going to pan out.

Sound familiar?

In '92 McDonald stayed healthy for a whole season for the first time, made 35 starts without a hiccup and, not coincidentally, began to turn his career around, finishing with a 13-13 record.

At the very least, the Orioles need to give Rhodes the same chance to succeed at the same point in his career.

Sure, it's hard to stay patient when he continues to pitch behind in the count, fill the bases, take for ever to get three outs. Sure, it's hard to stay patient when he gets beaten by a 21-year-old rookie who is infinitely more polished, as was the Angels' Brian Anderson last night.

But some pitchers, most pitchers, take longer to develop than an Anderson or a Mussina, those rarities who virtually go straight from college to the bigs. Rhodes is behind only their schedule.

And anyway, he actually didn't pitch that badly last night, walking only one batter and striking out four. He was down only 3-1 when he left the mound. As usual the bullpen faltered miserably, Mark Williamson giving up a three-run homer to Bo Jackson.

"In his last two starts he was down 2-1 and 3-1 when I took him out," manager Johnny Oates said after last night's game. "In both ballgames he pitched well enough to win. We just didn't do a good job behind him."

Still, it's clear that Rhodes is struggling with his pitches and his confidence, and it's easy to envision the Orioles deciding that they can't afford to pursue this lab experiment in a season when so much is expected.

"The kid needs to pitch more to get that consistency we want him to have, but what do you do when see the ballgame maybe slipping away?" Oates said. "I'm between a rock and a hard place on that one."

Decisions, decisions. What to do with a kid learning on the job with a contender?

Sending him to Rochester for a month wouldn't necessarily be a disaster. Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez are two of This Year's Stars who benefited greatly from visits to the minors after disappointing in the majors.

But the Orioles don't really have another starter to replace him -- the bullpen needs Mike Oquist more -- so he'll probably stay here and continue to pitch. That's the right course for both the club and the pitcher, anyway.

Just a hunch, but if he stays healthy and the club lets him stay in the majors and take every turn he is owed, by July there'll be a lot less complaining about him. Maybe he won't be a star -- that's a few years away, if ever -- but he'll be a functional, contributing member of the rotation. A major-league starter. The real deal.

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