Orioles 'pen may write sad endings

April 25, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

If the Orioles were a house, they'd be an expensive, glistening mansion -- with a possible flaw in the foundation.

The club has gone to the trouble and considerable expense of building one of baseball's best teams, but the whole endeavor is resting on a precarious-looking bullpen, which itself is resting on a 37-year-old closer who throws a changeup as an out pitch. Yikes.

With a solid everyday lineup and one of the game's best starting rotations, the Orioles are going to take plenty of leads into the late innings. But what good is a lead if the bullpen can't protect it?

That's not to suggest that this 'pen is doomed to fail, understand. It has talent, pockets of youth and much upside potential. Things could work out fine -- and if they do, the rest of the AL East will be looking up at the Orioles.

But the point is this: Right now, a day before the season begins, the Orioles' bullpen is laced with uncertainties.

Let's start where all bullpens do, at the closer. Watching the Orioles' fortunes rise and fall with Lee Smith's last year only reaffirmed that basic theorem of modern baseball geometry: The closer serves as the foundation for everything you do.

The Orioles were hoping Armando Benitez would be ready to take over for Smith, but that appears a foolhardy wish right now. Benitez has been hammered in three of his four spring outings. TC It's one of the oldest stories in the game: without craftsmanship, a can't-see-it fastball is just a pitch that comes back at you harder.

Of course, Benitez, with only 10 major-league innings on his resume, wasn't supposed to be ready until later in the year, which is why the club signed Doug Jones, who has 217 career saves.

Although the Orioles will rue the day they lost out on Expo-turned-Yankee closer John Wetteland, a far more suitable choice, Jones was a decent Plan B. He was brilliant with the Phillies last year, compiling 27 saves and a 2.17 ERA while allowing only two home runs and six walks in 54 innings.

But he is hardly a sure thing.

To begin with, left-handed hitters batted .327 against him in '94. Right-handers couldn't touch him (.179), but a closer must handle batters on both sides. What is going to happen when Jones needs to get Don Mattingly or Wade Boggs to end a game?

As well, Jones has hardly been a model of consistency lately. Since 1990 he has alternated good and bad seasons. He was hot in 1990, 1992 and 1994 (2.16 ERA), and not in 1991 and 1993 (4.96 ERA). The Indians gave up on him after '91, as did the Astros after '93.

Odd-numbered years have been his problem, in other words. And this is 1995.

If Jones isn't working out and Benitez isn't ready, look for the Orioles to make a run at Rick Aguilera, whom the Twins are willing to trade. The Indians, a contender without a proven closer, already are pricing him.

Below the closer on the bullpen organizational chart are the setup men, who must hold the lead from the starter's last pitch to the closer's first. The Orioles have uncertainties there, too.

Alan Mills is the right-hander, and he should be fine. Although his ERA has risen from 2.61 in '92 to 5.16 last year, he is tough, experienced and in his prime at 28 years old. The league batted only .214 against him in the last three months of last season. Benitez will start the season in this role, too.

The uncertainties throw left-handed. Jesse Orosco has replaced Jim Poole as the tough-on-lefties specialist, but it makes no sense because left-handed batters hit Orosco 68 points higher than did righties in '94. Plus, Orosco is 38 and had a 5.08 ERA last year in Milwaukee. A very debatable pickup.

The other left-handed setup man is Brad Pennington, the eternally promising, wild young fastballer. Now 26, he has shown more control this spring, as if some light bulb finally has come on, but, with a 7.38 major-league ERA, he is hardly a sure thing.

Let's see him succeed in games that count before we proclaim him useful.

The long reliever is Jamie Moyer, who has pitched solidly for the club for two years as a starter, and has the low-key emotional makeup needed to thrive in his new, thankless job. The only warning sign is that he hasn't pitched in relief in five years. But he should be fine.

It is above Moyer in the 'pen where the many questions lie.

Will Jones have a second straight good season for the first time since 1989-90?

Is Benitez really a major-leaguer now, or does he need more seasoning?

Will Orosco be able to get lefties out?

Will Pennington finally show some control?

The way baseball is played in the '90s, with starting pitchers rarely throwing complete games, a bullpen's success is essential to any contender's viability. That is particularly true this year, with the short spring training forcing starters to throw even fewer pitches per outing early in the season.

That the Orioles need their bullpen to deliver is obvious. But whether that bullpen is going to deliver is not obvious at all.

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