O's confidence deep-rooted to start year '96 questions replaced by quality veterans, especially on mound

Thin infield still concern

'We have more depth, a lot more consistency'

March 25, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The countdown to Opening Day has reached one week, and the Orioles are coming into focus.

The rotation is set, and, barring a trade, so is the bullpen. There's some excess on the pitching staff and in the outfield, which leaves the infield a little thinner than manager Davey Johnson would like. But these are worries that most organizations gladly would bear.

Talk of the Orioles this spring usually starts with pitching, which seems a good place to begin breaking them down.

The Orioles are up in arms, with so much pitching depth that Johnson wants to take 13 of them north. Right-hander Mike Mussina, with a 90-41 record in parts of six seasons but no new contract, again will anchor the rotation. Jimmy Key brings a winner's mentality and a healthy left shoulder to the No. 2 spot, followed by Scott Erickson, Rocky Coppinger and free agent Shawn Boskie.

Last season, the Orioles rolled the dice by giving unproven Jimmy Haynes the fifth spot. He won three games, spent some time in the minors and eventually was sent home. Now, they will turn to a veteran who is a better gamble to win at least 10 starts, though his 40 home runs allowed with the California Angels last year are cause for some concern with a launching pad like Camden Yards as his new home.

The Orioles have a safety net in right-hander Scott Kamieniecki, who pitched well enough to earn the job as fifth starter, but will work in long relief if he's not traded.

Unlike last year, when names like Jimmy Myers and Keith Shepherd littered the bullpen and Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills occupied the disabled list, the relief corps seems deep and sound. Rhodes and Mills are back, along with right-handers Terry Mathews, Armando Benitez and Mike Johnson and left-handers Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers.

Benitez not only is recovered from the strained ulnar collateral ligament that limited him to 18 appearances, but he's also in excellent shape and no longer relying solely on a 95-mph fastball to get hitters out. If Myers falters in the closer's role, Johnson said he won't hesitate to go with Benitez.

Mike Johnson, 21, was too busy pitching to Single-A hitters last year to notice what the Orioles were doing. Now, he looks to be a part of the bullpen, and not out of some act of desperation. He's been that good.

"We have more depth in our pitching staff and a lot more consistency," said general manager Pat Gillick. Mike Flanagan, who's in camp as a pitching instructor, said the bullpen will be the "quiet strength" of the club.

"I think the caliber of personnel they have to work with this year is a lot better, especially on the pitching staff," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "We had a lot of questions coming out of spring last year, but now we've got guys who are qualified and we've got great depth."

Davey Johnson is trying to find a way to keep his extra outfielders: Tony Tarasco, Jeffrey Hammonds and Jerome Walton, plus Pete Incaviglia, who will mostly serve as designated hitter. The starters are set with B. J. Surhoff in left, Brady Anderson in center and Eric Davis -- a huge upgrade defensively over Bobby Bonilla -- in right. But with 13 pitchers, there's a chance Tarasco, Hammonds and Walton could be fighting for one opening.

"I might have to petition the league for a 30-man roster," Johnson said.

A more probable solution, albeit a temporary one, would be putting Incaviglia (hamstring) and Walton (abdominal strain) on the disabled list. Eventually, Hammonds could wind up at Triple-A Rochester or with another team.

"We'll be able to sort through it," Gillick said.

The infield will be more settled when Roberto Alomar returns from his five-game suspension to open the season. He'll be a fixture at second, just as Cal Ripken will be at third, Mike Bordick at shortstop and Rafael Palmeiro at first. Defensively, this group has few rivals, and they're not too shabby with a bat in their hands, either.

Remember last spring, when Johnson took three utility infielders north? That won't happen again. Jeff Reboulet and Kelly Gruber will come to Baltimore, but the most likely scenario has Reboulet staying and Gruber being asked to continue his comeback at Rochester.

Reboulet, signed as a free agent from Minnesota, also can serve as an emergency catcher. And it's no secret Gillick is more comfortable with him at second base.

Hoiles, who's healthier than he's been in two years, and Lenny Webster, another free-agent signee, who's hitting .355, will do the catching. Webster is expected to start each time Erickson is on the mound, as he did when they were teammates in Minnesota.

"There are two things you can control, pitching and defense, and I think they've strengthened both," Flanagan said.

Said Johnson: "I don't care who you are or what you are, every year you try to improve certain areas of your ballclub. The one area that's going to take more time is depth. Our depth is coming. Am I comfortable? No, not quite."

If not comfortable, then encouraged.

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