13 pitchers arm O's, but bench thin

March 27, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Thirteen pitchers.

"If our bullpen has to fight their bullpen, we're going to win," the Orioles' Mike Mussina said jokingly.

And never mind that the bench would feature only two players while Roberto Alomar serves his five-game suspension, including the backup catcher.

"It means my chances of pinch hitting are going way up," Mussina said.

Well, maybe not.

"If we need a pinch hitter, it's going to have to come out of the bullpen," reliever Jesse Orosco said. "Half the team will be in there."

Thirteen pitchers!

The Toronto Blue Jays plan to carry 10. Earl Weaver used to head north with nine. So did Davey Johnson, when he managed the New York Mets.

But that was in the sleepy National League, and these are the Swinging '90s. Johnson doesn't want to be caught short of pitching again.

Thus, the Orioles still plan to open with 13 pitchers, though both Johnson and general manager Pat Gillick said yesterday that they would prefer to carry 12.

The only way to do that is to risk losing Scott Kamieniecki or Rule 5 draft pick Mike Johnson. And the only solution might be to trade Kamieniecki.

Gillick yesterday confirmed talks with the California Angels about pitching, and league sources confirmed the Angels' interest in Kamieniecki.

The discussions, however, appear stalled, and Gillick rated the chances of completing a deal as "less than 50-50."

So, 13 pitchers it will be, unless Gillick can trade Kamieniecki to another club in the next four days.

Johnson must be offered back to Toronto if the Orioles try to send him to the minors. Kamieniecki can become a free agent if he is demoted.

They are the two options if Shawn Boskie falters as the fifth starter. And though Boskie again pitched well yesterday, Johnson wants that extra protection.

He went four months without a victory from his fifth starter last season, and used a four-man rotation from late July until late September.

"I want depth," Johnson said after the Orioles' 13-2 victory over the New York Mets. "You have to have depth."

The problem is, the more depth he has on his pitching staff, the less he has on his bench.

Johnson said his bench would be "non-existent" during Alomar's suspension if the Orioles carried 13 pitchers.

And even after Alomar returned, he'd have only three bench players -- infielder Jeff Reboulet, catcher Lenny Webster and an outfielder.

With Johnson likely to use a rotating DH, that would leave only two spots for Tony Tarasco, Jerome Walton, Jeffrey Hammonds and Pete Incaviglia.

It's an incredibly tight squeeze, even with Incaviglia likely to open the season on the disabled list.

But it might be the Orioles' best option.

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa pioneered the use of expanded bullpens, but he could not remember opening a season with 13 pitchers.

The Orioles' regulars, however, play almost every inning of every game, reducing the importance of the bench.

Johnson probably will remove left fielder B. J. Surhoff for defense in the late innings, and perhaps hit for shortstop Mike Bordick in close games.

But that's about it.

"I found that because of the use of the DH, three moves is a lot of moves for an American League game," said La Russa, the former Oakland manager.

"Then you also have the emergency move when you can take out the DH and play him at a position. To me, it's like having 3 1/2 or four moves.

"I think most games that you play you will not be penalized. The only time you run short is if you've got the kind of guy you know you're going to pinch hit for. Then, you're cutting it pretty close."

Well, Bordick is the only Orioles regular who might fit that description. And La Russa said he "rarely" hit for him in Oakland.

"However he's swinging, he has his better at-bats with the game on the line," La Russa said.

"I'm not saying if you had a real tough [pitcher] and a quality hitter on the bench, it wouldn't be the time you do it. But I think it's true he rises to the occasion."

And Johnson said he wouldn't hit for Bordick automatically.

"Let's put it this way," he said. "Tie score, bottom of the ninth inning, maybe I want to change the matchup."

So, with 13 pitchers, how much would the Orioles suffer?

Probably not much.

Still, Johnson would lose the flexibility of keeping both left- and right-handed pinch hitters. In other words, he could have Tarasco, but not Walton or Hammonds.

It's a strange way to play. It's a dangerous way to play.

But what other choice is there?

Kamieniecki pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings yesterday, lowering his spring ERA to 3.38. If the Orioles trade him, Mike Johnson would become their only alternative to Boskie -- and the 21-year-old has yet to pitch above Single-A.

"Next year, we'll have more depth at Triple-A ready to pitch at the major-league level, and we won't have to do this," Davey Johnson said.

But right now, they're stuck.

Make room in the bullpen.

Thirteen pitchers.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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