Fernando nice, but O's made right move

INSIDE PITCH

June 30, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Now that Fernandomania has moved about 90 miles up the East Coast, the next question to be heard is: Why?

Not that anyone would've asked it a week ago. But, after Fernando Valenzuela pitched six effective innings for the Philadelphia Phillies while Arthur Rhodes was struggling against the Cleveland Indians, the subject is natural fodder for debate.

For a good portion of last season, Valenzuela was a useful performer for the Orioles. He even earned American League Pitcher of the Month honors in July.

So, given general manager Roland Hemond's track record for reclamation projects, and with the Orioles still looking for another starter, the assumption is that Valenzuela might've gotten some consideration.

Actually, the Orioles did indicate they'd be willing to give the veteran left-hander a minor-league contract and a spring training invitation if he was unable to get a big-league job after being granted free agency last winter.

But the bottom line was much the same as it was with right-hander Rick Sutcliffe, who also was allowed to leave and now is pitching with marginal effectiveness for the St. Louis Cardinals. Based on what they had seen over the last two months of last season, the Orioles felt they would have to do better to improve their rotation.

Manager Johnny Oates would've taken his chances on Sutcliffe making about 22 starts. But the consensus opinion was that Sutcliffe's main contribution would be through leadership rather than performance. There also was a feeling that the time had come for Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald to step out on their own as the staff leaders, a judgment that seems as sound now as it did realistic at the time.

In the case of Valenzuela, there was little reason to suspect he could pitch as high as the .500 level in the big leagues. That being the case, there was no reason to stifle younger pitchers any longer.

Even though Rhodes has continued to struggle and Mike Oquist still is feeling his way, there were no guarantees with either Valenzuela or Sutcliffe. At the advanced stages of their careers, it would not have been prudent for the Orioles to expect any improvement.

As frustrating as it sometimes can be, the time comes when a team has to take chances with unproven youth rather than depend on questionable experience. With their starting rotation riddled with injuries, the Phillies were in virtually a no-risk situation when they signed Valenzuela.

The Orioles tried the Band-Aid approach last year with mediocre results. It was time to take a different approach. Whether it works most likely will depend on how much Sid Fernandez can contribute, but there's no reason to look back at this point.

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