Farm Arms On The Rise

August 21, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

He logs 5,000 miles a month in his van, lugging around bags of baseball equipment, destined for the next minor-league ballpark in the next small town. Stays for five days. Catches the pitching rotation one time around. Heads for the next minor-league ballpark in the next small town.

The long rides have been a lot shorter this season than in years past for Orioles roving pitching instructor Tom Brown, a resident of Sarasota, Fla. Or at least they have seemed shorter.

"Everyone talks about our depth at Double-A, which is justified, but we're loaded at every one of the lower levels, too," Brown said. "It makes my job a lot easier."

So does the fact no minor-league pitcher has undergone arm surgery the past two seasons, an indication the Orioles are drafting durable pitchers with free and easy deliveries, teaching them proper mechanics, and putting them through helpful preventive exercises.

Other than Armando Benitez, who made a spectacular major-league debut in the days leading up to the strike, none of the pitchers in the Orioles' organization has an eye-popping arm.

No one is projected as an ace of a pitching staff, the way Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald did. But talent judges inside and outside the organization agree the Orioles have a greater number of pitching prospects now than they have had in several years.

The best place to start is at Double-A Bowie, where no fewer than seven bona fide major-league prospects pitch.

The Fab Five rotation, ranked in order of their chances of landing as major-league starters: Jimmy Haynes, Brian Sackinsky, Scott Klingenbeck, left-hander Vaughn Eshelman and Rick Forney. They are backed by a bullpen featuring Benitez and Joe Borowski.

Benitez struck out 14 major-league hitters in 10 innings and hit 100 mph on the radar gun twice in one inning.

Borowski, 23, was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a 1991 trade for Pete Rose II.

"He has as good a slider as you're going to see in baseball," Brown said of Borowski.

At the other end of the Baysox's staff, Haynes has as good a curveball as can be found in the Orioles' minor-league system.

"He's not ready yet, but next year he is one of those guys you have to take a serious look at," Brown said. "He has two curveballs -- one that goes straight down and one that kind of cuts a 45-degree angle across the strike zone and goes down. His arm speed is so quick. He only throws 86 or 87, but he sneaks it by guys pretty good."

Haynes' deceptive delivery makes his fastball appear faster to hitters than it actually is, which makes him something of a right-handed Sid Fernandez. Then again, Haynes stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 175 pounds. So much for that comparison.

Klingenbeck, whose best pitch is a changeup, drew comparisons to former Orioles right-hander Bob Milacki when he defeated the Detroit Tigers in a June 2 start, limiting them to three earned runs in seven innings.

Sackinsky, 23, got off to a rough start in the organization after being drafted in the second round in 1992. He had an 11-17 record coming into this season, his best.

"He's a great big, strong brute, the Clydesdale of the pitchers," Brown said. "He's all muscle, no fat, works real hard. He came in from Stanford his first year out of shape and overmatched. He really struggled. Then he decided he was not going to let that happen anymore. He stuck the Walkman in his ear and started running religiously."

And his stock has been running up ever since. Still, Haynes is considered the top prospect among the Fab Five.

"Sackinsky and Klingenbeck are nice prospects, but you wouldn't want either one of them to be the main guy you would get in a trade," said a scout from another American League organization. "Haynes is another story. But they won't even talk about trading him."

Not all of the prospects are at Bowie.

Bluefield's Rocky Coppinger (75 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings) was drafted in the 19th round last season and projected as a second-round pick this past June. That's why the Orioles signed Coppinger to a $200,000 bonus rather than let him re-enter the draft.

"He's a big, strong hard thrower who has a great future," Brown said. "He goes right at them, stares at 'em. He's a mean, aggressive guy on the mound and that's good to see. He's capable of making the jump [to the majors] pretty quick."

Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin saw Coppinger pitch recently and came away impressed.

"He has a power type arm," Melvin said. He's big, strong, athletic. He looks like he's going to be durable. The day I saw him, he overmatched the hitters in that league."

Francisco Saneaux, who recently overcame a severe case of Steve Blass Disease, otherwise known as fear of home plate, has overmatched hitters lately for the Single-A Albany (Ga.) Polecats.

Saneaux, 20, had averaged more than a walk per inning until recently.

"He has an 88 mph fastball and a curveball that buckles their knees and he also has a major-league changeup," Brown said. "He's really starting to turn some heads."

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