Orioles Profiles

March 29, 1996

Mike Mussina

35 Pitcher

Role: The ace. The Red Sox and Yankees may have better starting rotations and deeper pitching staffs. But neither team has a better pitcher than Mussina, who is perhaps the best right-hander in baseball other than the Braves' Greg Maddux.

What 1996 means to him: Mussina wants a long-term contract so he'll know that he can play relatively close to his home in Montoursville, Pa. If he stays healthy this year and has another good year, it figures that he'll be rewarded. Amply.

X-factor: This is potentially the best team Mussina has played for, and there's no telling what kind of year he's capable of on a championship-caliber team. Mussina has the highest winning percentage of any active pitcher in the majors (.703) despite never having played for a division winner.

Statistically speaking: For some reason, Mussina was much better pitching in day games in '95, accumulating an 8-2 record with a 2.38 ERA, compared with an 11-7 mark and 3.84 ERA at night.

Scott Erickson

19 Pitcher

Role: He is the No. 3 starter. Mike Mussina is the ace, and David Wells and Kent Mercker have gotten lots of off-season publicity. But Erickson may be the sleeping giant: a sinkerballer on grass with a great infield defense. He won nine games in less than three months as an Oriole.

What 1996 means to him: Erickson's career had been declining when the Twins dealt him here, but he looked so good the second half of last season that the Orioles signed him through 1997. A big year would restore him as a dominant pitcher.

X-factor: In Minnesota, Erickson had strained relations with his manager and pitching coach. That's not the case here, where the right-hander has been praised repeatedly for his work ethic.

Statistically speaking: Erickson has thrown more than 200 innings three times, and he likely would have in 1994 and 1995 if it weren't for the strike.

Jeffrey Hammonds

11 Outfielder

Role: He, Mike Devereaux and Tony Tarasco will share two spots in the order, with Hammonds likely to play against all left-handers and some right-handers. Hammonds played poorly in the outfield last year and hasn't performed much better this spring. He probably will be in left field or at designated hitter.

What 1996 means to him: Hammonds has battled injuries his entire pro career, which brings him to a crossroads. He's eligible for arbitration after this season, and the O's will want to see him healthy and productive for at least one year before they commit to him. The new regime, Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson, had nothing to do with drafting Hammonds and, therefore, has no special allegiance to him.

X-factor: Hammonds came out of college as a speedster, often compared to Rickey Henderson. Now, he's more of a power hitter, which should make him even more effective in the cozy confines of Camden Yards.

Statistically speaking: He has played nearly a full season's worth of major-league games the past three years -- 158 -- and his numbers would be pretty respectable for a young player: a .280 batting average, 15 homers, 73 RBIs and 13 steals.

Tony Tarasco

29 Outfielder

Role: Tarasco will start against most right-handed pitchers, mostly in right field, where he can show off his arm. In other games, he probably will be a late-inning defensive replacement for Jeffrey Hammonds or Bobby Bonilla.

What 1996 means to him: He'll be one of two or three players manager Davey Johnson will look to develop this year. Tarasco has terrific ability, great power and speed, but has lacked consistency.

X-factor: If Tarasco had remained with the Expos, he would have been the leadoff hitter with a lot of pressure to produce. With the O's, he's a complementary player who can relax and concentrate on improving.

Statistically speaking: For a young player, he had a good walk-to-strikeout ratio (51 to 78) last season.

Kent Mercker

38 Pitcher

Role: He's the No. 4 starter. Manager Davey Johnson likely will try to line him up against teams who are better against right-handers, such as the Yankees, Angels and Indians.

What 1996 means to him: He languished with the Braves as the No. 5 starter on a team with the Fab Four rotation. Mercker hasn't pitched more than 143 innings in a major-league season. But the Orioles will give him regular turns every fifth day. If he throws 180 innings, his 1997 option kicks in.

X-factor: Mercker's durability never has been tested.

Statistically speaking: When he pitched every fifth day last year, Mercker's ERA was 3.14. With five or more days' rest, it was 5.73.

Gregg Zaun

24 Catcher

Role: If No. 1 catcher Chris Hoiles isn't throwing well, then Zaun likely would start in his place. It could happen the first week of the season, when the Orioles play the speedy Royals.

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