KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Are the Orioles underachieving? Or are they lucky to be within reach of the first-place Yankees in the American League East?
The answer to both questions is yes, as contradictory as that sounds.
That they're underachieving is obvious; they should be doing far better with a $48 million payroll and a roster of All-Stars and accomplished pros.
Yet they're also lucky to be seven games over .500 considering that their starting rotation has disintegrated almost into a state of nothingness.
As much as every club in the major leagues is struggling to find quality pitching this season, no other has had all five members of its Opening Day starting rotation come in so far below expectations.
The Orioles have other concerns, such as Jeffrey Hammonds' lack of production, Chris Hoiles' lack of defense and Bobby Bonilla's lack of power, but none of that would matter if the starters were pitching anywhere close to their expected levels.
It's a complete and utter disaster in the rotation, the kind that could ruin a lesser team.
Mike Mussina is the shining light among the starters with a 9-3 record, but his 5.13 ERA is almost two runs higher than his career average.
And David Wells, Scott Erickson and Kent Mercker -- the veteran fiber of the rotation -- are a sporting disaster with a combined 9-16 record and a 6.01 ERA.
Throw in Jimmy Haynes, who has mercifully been relegated to long relief, and the original starters other than Mussina are 11-21.
Look no further for the only real reason the Orioles aren't delivering on their $48 million promise.
The other parts of a playoff-caliber team are in place; the offense is ranked in the top half of the league in runs, and the reconfigured bullpen is doing fine.
It's the starters, stupid.
Wells, Erickson and Mercker are killing the Orioles.
Winners of a combined 36 games in 1995, they're on a pace to win 13 fewer this season.
They're forcing the club to scuffle for almost every win.
Wells is the biggest mystery. A 16-game winner in '95, his ERA jumped from 1.50 to 5.72 over the course of his last nine starts before last night. Even worse, he all but admitted that he wasn't focused on his job, almost as if he had lost interest.
His approach was so casual in a losing start at California on May 31 that pitching coach Pat Dobson said it was "embarrassing." Wells didn't argue.
Then, after a losing start in Detroit last week, Wells said, "I'm messing around out there and not going after guys. It's not me and it's not right."
It was after that game, not coincidentally, that Dobson assumed control of the pitchers' running program.
Last night, the Orioles gave Wells a three-run lead in the first inning; he held it for six batters.
He did recover and pitch an impressive string of seven shutout innings, a positive sign that suggests he might be on his way back to pitching as he should.
It's about time.
He should be embarrassed for not having shown more commitment earlier.
Erickson is almost as much of a disappointment. Winner of 13 games last year, he began this year solidly enough but has recently taken drastic steps backward.
In his past six starts, he has a 8.59 ERA with a pathetic 17 walks and 13 strikeouts in 34 innings.
The Orioles have trailed seven of the last eight times Erickson has handed a game over to the bullpen.
Earlier in the season he showed signs of maturing, cleverly mixing up his sinking fastball and his curveball. But lately he has begun overthrowing his fastball once he starts getting hit, causing it to lose its sinking motion and get hit even harder.
Not a good trend.
Still, none of the starters has been consistently less effective than Mercker. That he has three wins is a miracle considering that he has allowed an astounding 95 base runners in 50 1/3 innings.
Let's remember that he was Plan B for the Orioles after they failed to sign free agent Al Leiter, who has pitched well for the Marlins. At the time, it appeared to be a solid acquisition of a pitcher with much to prove.
But Mercker has proved only that he has a clueless streak running through him.
That is the only appropriate adjective to describe his stunning criticism of manager Davey Johnson after getting yanked Friday night following a horrid performance against one of baseball's worst teams, the Royals.
"If anything, I should have taken him out earlier," Johnson said.
As if he needed to dignify Mercker's witless outburst with a response.
In any case, it's clear why the Orioles felt compelled to reach into their minor-league system and give Rocky Coppinger a premature shot in the bigs.
Though only a fledgling, Coppinger couldn't possibly do worse than the highly paid veterans.
At least he has some youthful passion.
Problem is, the Orioles don't have any options beyond Coppinger and Rick Krivda.
Yes, they can always make a trade, and probably will.
But they can't trade for an entire rotation.
In other words, they have to hope that their starters already in uniform get a collective clue and start getting people out.
If not, they're doomed to underachieve all season.
Pub Date: 6/16/96