Rebuilt O's look to mesh, produce Pitchers, catchers due at new site today

February 15, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The anticipation has been building for three months, since the Orioles undertook the dramatic organizational face lift that has made the club a favorite to win the American League East. Now, it is time for expectation to merge with reality.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to the Orioles' relocated spring training site today and begin workouts tomorrow. Position players arrive next week. New manager Davey Johnson will have six weeks to create the winning chemistry that was conspicuously absent in 1995.

"It [the team] looks good on paper," Johnson said, "but I want to see it for myself. I won't really know what I've got until I see those guys in person. Up until now, I've been going on what other people have been telling me."

The chemistry question may become a major spring training issue, but only because there aren't a lot of individual personnel questions to answer. The starting rotation is all but set -- with newcomers Kent Mercker and David Wells joining Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and top fifth-starter candidate Jimmy Haynes. Closer Randy Myers and setup man Roger McDowell are expected to add the kind of late-inning stability that the club lacked last season, though the unfulfilled expectations of '95 figure to temper the rosy outlook for '96.

The Orioles arrived at spring training a year ago with a new manager (Phil Regan) and a starting rotation of Mussina, Ben McDonald, Kevin Brown, Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes. It looked like one of the deepest rotations in baseball, until Fernandez proved unpitchable and injuries cut down McDonald, Brown and Rhodes. For much of the year, sixth man Jamie Moyer was the No. 2 starter.

"I think -- at least as far as the media is concerned -- people are being cautiously optimistic because of what happened last year," Mussina said.

There might be good reason for that caution. General manager Pat Gillick sought to reduce the number of variables in the pitching equation by acquiring four steady veterans, but there still is room for some uncertainty. Erickson went 9-4 after he was acquired by the Orioles last summer, but he was a combined 20-36 the previous 2 1/2 seasons in Minnesota. Mercker was a solid member of the terrific pitching staff in Atlanta, but his overall statistics deteriorated in his first full season as a starter last year. Wells is coming off the winningest season of his career (16-8), but he has been a high-ERA pitcher throughout his career.

Mussina, the only one who can reasonably be considered a can't-miss proposition, doesn't seem concerned. He said the acquisition of several big-producing position players, from Bobby Bonilla last summer to Roberto Alomar and B. J. Surhoff in December, will keep pressure off the pitchers.

"I feel good about the staff," he said. "I think we made good personnel choices, and I don't think we're expecting people to do things they aren't capable of doing. There is more focus on the field than on the pitching staff.

There is more focus on Alomar, Surhoff and Bonilla. We have a pretty potent offensive team and an above-average defensive team, so you haven't heard a lot about the pitching staff.

"If we are consistent, we should be competitive. We don't have to be the '70 Orioles to win."

Johnson won't have to spend a lot of time sorting out the club's pitching situation. There are a couple of jobs open in the bullpen, but he can use the first few weeks to familiarize himself with the personnel and monitor the progress of injured pitchers Alan Mills and Rhodes. Early reports on Mills are promising, but club officials suspect that Rhodes might not pitch competitively until May or June.

Myers is set as the closer, and the two setup roles likely will be filled by McDowell and left-hander Jesse Orosco, but a healthy Mills would be a big plus. If he can get back to full velocity, he could win back some innings in setup relief and spell Myers in an occasional save situation.

There has been so much turnover this winter that everyone will need some time to get acquainted, particularly veteran catcher Chris Hoiles, who could be handling as many as seven new pitchers on Opening Day.

"I'm looking forward to it," Hoiles said. "We've got a lot of experience and a lot of quality guys. . . . With the addition of everybody and Arthur and Mills coming back, we just have a lot of live arms."

And, unlike last spring, there will be plenty of time to work with all of them. Training camp was compressed into three weeks last year because of labor strife, but the still-unresolved collective bargaining dispute has gone underground. Hoiles will have until April 1 to get up to speed on the new acquisitions.

"I think that takes care of itself," he said. "Their experience and my experience combine as we get to know each other in game-type situations."

Hoiles arrived in Fort Lauderdale several days early, eager to forget his disappointing 1995 season and happy for a fresh start with what he considers to be a new organization.

"I think everybody is excited," Hoiles said. "When you've got a proven manager like Davey, with what he has done in the past and what he brings to the ballclub, and you've got people like the GM and assistant GM [Kevin Malone] . . . we've got a top-of-the-line organization going for us."

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