Shot in the arm for Orioles' staff

April 09, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan hemmed and hawed two days ago when asked if he had set his lineup of pitchers for the spring exhibitions.

"We'll get back to you with that later," he said. "We might make some changes."

Three, to be exact -- the number of free-agent pitchers signed by the Orioles yesterday. As expected, they signed right-hander Kevin Brown, 30, who won 21 games for Texas three years ago and will join the rotation; and Doug Jones, 37, who saved 27 games for Philadelphia in '94 and who will be the Orioles' closer until manager Phil Regan decides rookie reliever Armando Benitez is ready for that responsibility.

In addition, the Orioles signed 37-year-old Jesse Orosco to serve as the bullpen's left-handed setup man. Pitching for Milwaukee last year, he made 40 appearances, compiling an ERA of 5.06.

The cost: for Brown, a one-year deal worth $4.225 million (minus the prorated sum lost to the strike). For Jones, a $1 million base salary, about $300,000 in potential performance bonuses, and another potential $300,000 in award earnings (Cy Young Award, etc.). For Orosco, a $400,000 base salary and the possibility of another $200,000 in incentives.

The Orioles had 38 players on their 40-man roster, and to make room for the three pitchers, they placed pitcher Mark Eichhorn, who had off-season shoulder surgery, on the 15-day disabled list yesterday, and are expected to put him on the 60-day DL shortly.

All week, whispers of concern circulated through the Orioles' camp. The New York Yankees added reliever John Wetteland, the Toronto Blue Jays traded for David Cone, and the Orioles had done nothing. Those whispers turned into sighs of relief yesterday.

"That sounds pretty good to me," Flanagan said. "I'll suffer through that."

Pitcher Ben McDonald said: "You always say every year that everyone's got to stay healthy, and that's true. But we should be able to pitch with anybody this year. I don't see why we can't.

"The Yankees have a heck of a staff and a heck of a team, but there's no reason we can't play with anybody."

And from manager Phil Regan:

"I think it gives us as good a starting rotation as anyone in the American League, or in baseball. . . . We really could have five guys [Mike Mussina, McDonald, Sid Fernandez, Brown and Arthur Rhodes] who could go out and pitch a shutout on any given night, and that's rare."

The addition of Brown augmented the rotation, but the signings of Jones and Orosco fill what could have been a potentially devastating void.

Jones, with 217 career saves, becomes the closer and buys time for Benitez to develop. All spring, Regan has said he felt confident Benitez had the stuff to be the closer, but the bottom line is that the right-hander has 10 innings in the majors, and championship-caliber clubs usually don't win with rookie closers.

Regan left open the possibility that Benitez could be the ace out of the bullpen by the end of the year, and that's fine with Jones, who arrived late yesterday afternoon. Jones has been through this before, waiting in Cleveland and then Houston and Philadelphia as young closers developed. Or didn't.

"When I was in Cleveland," he said, "they brought Steve Olin in and Rudy Seanez at the same time. I was told three years straight that I was to be the setup guy whenever the closer [was ready]. It was fine with me. I never complained.

"I talked to those guys, tried to convince them it was their job to take. But one thing led to another, and it just didn't seem to work out."

In Houston, it was Todd Jones and John Hudek. In Philadelphia, Ricky Bottalico. Jones kept on throwing his changeups and making hitters mad and saving games.

"They were all great kids with all kinds of potential," said Jones, wearing blue jeans, his hair grown out far down his neck. "They just needed a little bit of time. I have no qualms. If they've got three or four guys out there [in the Orioles bullpen] who can close games, that's great. That means we'll have a great pitching staff."

At the very least, a very good one, the rotation anchoring the bullpen.

Benitez will become a setup man, something that intrigues Regan; Benitez, throwing more than 90 mph, being followed by Jones, with all of his soft stuff.

Regan said, "That could be very hard for hitters to make that adjustment."

Alan Mills will move into middle relief. Adding Brown to the rotation means that Jamie Moyer pitches out of the bullpen, and adding Orosco moves Brad Pennington into middle relief.

The Orioles' signing of Jones and Orosco effectively ended their interest in reliever Mike Jackson, who departed for the free-agent camp in Homestead, Fla., rather than throw for Regan and general manager Roland Hemond again. Later yesterday, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds.

Funny how things change so quickly in baseball these days. Less than 72 hours ago, the Orioles were desperate for experienced bullpen help. Now they're turning guys away.


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