Mercker is hole in O's rotation

April 30, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Jimmy Haynes was terrific last night, but make no mistake about it:

The Orioles need another starting pitcher.

Kent Mercker looked like a steal when the Orioles acquired him from Atlanta, but he didn't get it done in spring training, and he's not getting it done now.

Haynes is a logical candidate to replace him in the rotation, but he hasn't proven himself as a starter, and neither has Arthur Rhodes.

Depth of starting pitching was one advantage the New York Yankees had over the Orioles at the start of the season, and the difference is growing even more pronounced with the two AL East leaders meeting tonight for the first time.

Club officials recognize the problem -- they're already exploring trade possibilities, knowing their starters have completed seven innings only twice in the past 15 games.

The Yankees have six starters for five spots, and a seventh pitcher -- red-hot reliever Mariano Rivera -- ready to move into the rotation at any time.

The Orioles have three quality starters (Mike Mussina, David Wells and Scott Erickson) and a series of questions behind them.

Mercker? He has averaged four innings per start in his last four outings, and his ERA stands at 9.27 after last night's dismal performance.

Haynes? He could take Mercker's spot after earning the victory in relief last night, but is still no sure thing.

Rhodes? He makes his second start tonight against the Yankees, a team that batted .353 against him last season.

In spring training, Rhodes was a candidate to be traded coming off shoulder surgery. Now, he's the key to the Orioles' rotation.

Just like everyone planned.

Pat Dobson is Rhodes' fourth pitching coach in Baltimore. At the age of 26, in his sixth major-league season, maybe the left-hander is finally on the verge.

Certainly, he has been magnificent thus far, posting a 0.60 ERA in five relief appearances and one start.

But can the Orioles trust him?

The Yankees are loaded with left-handed hitters, so tonight will be a revealing test.

Yet, even if Rhodes is ready to fulfill his potential, and even if Haynes is ready to assume the fifth spot, the Orioles still would be thin in the rotation.

Mercker could straighten out in the bullpen, or even return to the fifth-starter role he had in Atlanta, but right now he's a mess.

Rhodes and Mercker, Rhodes and Haynes, even Rhodes and Rick Krivda -- these are dangerous combinations for a club intent reaching the postseason.

Haynes worked 5 1/3 innings last night, allowing three hits, striking out six and walking six. His outing was something to build on, not something with which to get carried away.

The problem is, the wild card gives virtually every team reason to believe it can contend, making trades difficult at this early stage, if not impossible.

Heck, the Detroit Tigers are only 5 1/2 games out, with a 7.09 ERA.

So, whom can the Orioles acquire?

Forget Kevin Appier -- the price would be too high, in both salary and players. But Kansas City is a logical trading partner, if the Orioles target another veteran right-hander -- Mark Gubicza.

He's 33, he had a 3.75 ERA last season, and he earns a relatively modest $1.6 million. In short, he's the kind of pitcher who can stabilize a rotation.

Mercker hasn't done that. He's in a new league, with the new responsibility of pitching every fifth day. But this was the chance he wanted, and he's blowing it.

He left the mound muttering last night after manager Davey Johnson yanked him with one out in the third inning, but he didn't have much of a case.

True, all three Texas runs in the inning were unearned, but the first error came on a Juan Gonzalez rocket through third %J baseman B.J. Surhoff's legs.

Mercker then hit Dean Palmer with a pitch and gave up an RBI single to Rusty Greer, with another run scoring on Brady Anderson's throwing error.

Johnson brought in Haynes after a groundout by Mark McLemore. Mercker was clearly upset, but he had thrown 68 pitches and gotten only seven outs.

At that pace, he would have needed 262 pitches to complete nine innings. What was Johnson supposed to do, wait for him to settle down?

This is a manager who is exceedingly patient with his pitchers -- he could have pulled Haynes in two earlier spots last night.

If Mercker can't do the job, then they can't wait.

They need help, if not immediately, then soon.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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