Gang of four plan risky in long run

August 29, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Davey Johnson's switch to a four-man rotation made sense for a club intent on reaching the playoffs this season.

But like so much else with the Orioles these days, it raises disturbing questions for the future.

Indeed, if either Mike Mussina or Rocky Coppinger gets hurt, it won't look like such a bright idea.

Mussina is a perennial Cy Young candidate the Orioles need to sign long-term. Coppinger is a prized rookie who could develop into a No. 1 starter.

Why jeopardize their futures?

To win now, of course.

And so far, Johnson's decision looks as smart as owner Peter Angelos' decision to keep the club together, rather than trade veterans for prospects.

The Orioles are 20-11 since going to a four-man rotation on July 27. But in 14 starts on three days' rest, Mussina and Co. are only 6-4 with a 5.71 ERA.

Heck, even if the Orioles make the playoffs, the starters may be exhausted, which would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?

Yes, but Johnson and pitching coach Pat Dobson had a valid reason for making the switch -- in 32 games, their fifth starters were 6-14 with an 8.02 ERA.

"Ideally, I'd like to have a fifth starter," Johnson said after yesterday's 3-0 loss to Oakland. "Got anybody in mind?"

Well, Denny Neagle would have been perfect, but the Atlanta Braves acquired him yesterday for three minor-leaguers.

One day Angelos will learn, there's only so much money can buy.

Minor-league depth is a more valuable trade resource. The Orioles don't have any, which is one reason general manager Pat Gillick wanted to deal David Wells and Bobby Bonilla.

But that's another story.

The biggest on-field question, from now until the end of the season, will be the effect of the four-man rotation, particularly on Mussina.

He had won six straight starts before yesterday, two on three days' rest. He could have won this one, too, if the Orioles hadn't been shut out for the third time in six games.

So, what's the problem?

Mussina struck out the side after falling behind 2-0 on Mark McGwire with runners on first and third and none out in the fourth.

But in the next inning he suffered, allowing the three Oakland runs.

Johnson said Mussina threw too many fastballs to fastball hitters, and the pitcher conceded, "I probably made some bad choices."

But he also stopped hitting locations, a sign he wasn't as sharp. It was the first time he had pitched back-to-back on three days' rest. Did it have an effect?

Mussina wouldn't touch any question concerning the four-man rotation, an idea he opposed, but accepted.

"He felt maybe we should have waited longer to do it," Dobson said. "But we felt when we did it is when we had to do it, if we were going to stay in this thing."

Said Johnson, "Moose has won 70 percent of his [career] starts. [His thinking was] why change? That's pretty good thinking. But for the good of the team, we didn't have that fifth guy."

Cal Ripken moved to third base. Brady Anderson dropped to second in the batting order. Why shouldn't Mussina also sacrifice?

Because this is different.

Mussina weighs only 185 pounds, and arm trouble sidelined him in 1993. It's difficult to label him selfish when the issue is his physical well-being.

Coppinger, by contrast, is a 250-pound horse. Dobson said he would benefit from pitching on short rest, gaining more touch on his off-speed pitches.

Perhaps, but the Braves didn't even use their starters on short rest in last year's World Series, pitching Steve Avery in Game 4 even though he was 7-13 in the regular season.

And what about Kansas City's Kevin Appier, who blew out his arm last season pitching in a four-man rotation?

All right, bad example.

Dobson indicated that Kansas City manager Bob Boone made a mistake, citing Appier's "violent delivery."

"Guys like that you can't pitch in a four-man," Dobson said. "He puts too much strain on his shoulder. A guy like him needs the extra day.

"Looking at the four guys we've got, they've all got good arm action, good deliveries."

Mussina included.

"He's so mechanically proper, and I'm not letting him throw a lot of pitches [110 yesterday]," Johnson said.

"If Moose or anybody in the rotation felt like it was causing a physical problem, we'd stop it right then."

Johnson used four-man rotations previously with the New York Mets and Cincinnati. Seattle is trying one now that Randy Johnson is out for the season.

Dobson is such a fan of the idea, he said he would "seriously consider" it for next season, and beyond.

"It's going to be impossible to find five guys after expansion," Dobson said. "It may be impossible to find four guys, unless you're Atlanta and you've got 'em lined up.

"We're going to talk about getting our kids at Double-A doing it, and at Triple-A, to prepare them to do it here."

Then, at least, the Orioles wouldn't be asking their pitchers to do something they're not trained to do.

The quickest way to ruin a pitcher is by overusing him.

When you're talking about a pitcher as important as Mike Mussina, that's an awfully big risk to take.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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