It's 3-for-all in O's bullpen

March 13, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles manager Davey Johnson met behind closed doors with the members of his coaching staff and the front office to discuss what they've seen this spring. No doubt that one topic was the progress of the bullpen, which, on paper, has the potential for problems.

The Orioles began camp with three of six spots up for grabs, and two of the candidates, Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills, are coming off shoulder surgery. With Opening Day less than three weeks away, this is how the Orioles' bullpen is shaping up:

Closer Randy Myers arrived to camp long after the other pitchers, but he's thrown well. His fastball is in the low 90s, and his control is very good. "I'm right on schedule," he said recently.

Roger McDowell, slated to be the right-handed setup man, is coming back nicely from some early soreness in his shoulder. "It's something I deal with every year," McDowell said. "You come in here and break the adhesions in your shoulder, and it's going to be sore for a while."

Pitching coach Pat Dobson brought along McDowell slowly at first, pitching him in intrasquad games and in a B game. But McDowell asked to be switched to A games last week, and threw two shutout innings against the New York Mets Saturday. Including B games, McDowell has pitched four innings, allowing one hit, one walk and no runs.

If Jesse Orosco were a 22-year-old minor-leaguer, he probably would've been cut by now, based on his early performances. He needed 36 pitches to get through a miserable inning in one intrasquad game and about 40 pitches to get through one inning in an exhibition. His ERA after two outings is 20.25, with five hits, five runs (three earned) in 1 1/3 innings.

But Orosco said he's gradually building back his arm strength, and Johnson and Dobson spotted a flaw in his delivery after his second exhibition performance. Orosco was throwing his pitches with his fingers wrapped around the side of the ball, rather than on top, making it hard for him to keep the ball down in the strike zone.

Orosco will be the left-hander who pitches in tight spots in the seventh and eighth innings, setting up Myers.

Beyond Myers, Orosco and McDowell, general manager Pat Gillick said Sunday, "there are still three spots open."

Armando Benitez has pitched four hitless innings, walking two and striking out eight. He struck out all three hitters he faced yesterday, throwing his newest pitch a split-finger for two strikes. So far, so good.

"What he's doing, you certainly can't improve upon," Johnson said. "He's throwing the ball down in the strike zone, and he's throwing a lot of sliders. I haven't been charting balls and strikes, but I'm sure it's the opposite of what it was last year."

The Orioles' staff wants Benitez to make this team, serving as a middle reliever, and they're encouraged by what they've seen. So far, Benitez has not had to deal with much adversity he hasn't had to rebound from a bad outing, for instance and whenever that happens, that could be a good test of how much Benitez has improved.

The fact that he's forged a strong relationship with Dobson should help. "My father," Benitez said. "He's my daddy."

Rhodes, coming back from shoulder surgery, has pitched effectively in intrasquad and B games, throwing three shutout innings in his last appearance. His fastball has been clocked as high as 92 mph. Rhodes will begin to throw in A squad games this week, and Gillick said there's a chance Rhodes will start the season with the Orioles.

Dobson said Rhodes' mechanics are much more sound than they have been, helping him to throw strikes with more consistency. Rhodes hasn't had many opportunities to pitch with runners on base, which was when he often got into trouble last year.

If Rhodes is with the team, he'll likely fill the role of long reliever and spot starter. But his name has been raised in trade talks there were about 10 scouts on hand to watch his last outing and if the Orioles deal for a left-handed-hitting outfielder or catcher or reliever, Rhodes may be their most attractive commodity available. In spite of his inconsistency and arm trouble, Rhodes is relatively young (26) and left-handed and throws hard.

Mills was ahead of Rhodes when camp opened his shoulder rehabilitation was slightly advanced. But Rhodes has pitched far better than Mills, whose command has been poor. He walked the bases loaded in his first appearance; he repeatedly pitched high in the strike zone in his second outing, and was hit hard. He'll have to improve markedly to avoid starting the year on the disabled list (Mills, like Rhodes, is out of options and cannot be sent to the minors without being passed through waivers).

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