FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Here's the choice: You can have a proven, dominant closer to preserve your late-inning leads, or you can have a closer-by-committee arrangement, with capable pitchers but blurred responsibilities.
Which do you want? The dominant closer, of course, particularly if you have designs on winning a World Series, as the Orioles do in 1998.
Most recent Series winners have had top closers anchoring their bullpens. The absence of one has cost such teams as the Braves and Pirates.
Welcome to the Orioles' biggest gamble of 1998.
Manager Ray Miller said yesterday that he could spread the ninth-inning responsibilities among as many as four relievers who combined for 24 saves in 1997.
It isn't the perfect arrangement or even a desired one, but the Orioles are stuck with it after losing Randy Myers to the Blue Jays via free agency and then choosing not to sign veteran Rod Beck.
Not that they're hurting in the bullpen, mind you; to the contrary, Arthur Rhodes, Jesse Orosco, Alan Mills, Terry Mathews, Norm Charlton and Armando Benitez could compose one of the game's deepest relief corps.
But the absence of a proven closer is the biggest potential hole in the Orioles' $70 million vessel.
"If you don't have someone who has saved 45 or 50 games in a season, you don't have a closer," Miller said.
Thus, while four ex-Orioles close games for other teams this season (Myers, Cleveland's Jose Mesa, Milwaukee's Doug Jones and Florida's Jay Powell), the Orioles will resort to a committee arrangement with Benitez in the featured role.
"I'm going to go by feel, and by the [lefty-right] matchups," Miller said. "Armando will get plenty of chances. But I might go with Arthur and his power against certain left-handers. Or Orosco in certain situations. Charlton and Orosco have saved a lot of games over the years. I'm not lacking for options."
The original plan was to sign Myers to a one-year contract for this season, giving Benitez, 25, another year to develop before he took over. But Myers saved 45 of 46 chances last season, enabling him to get a three-year, $18 million contract from the Blue Jays.
The Orioles could have fought harder for Myers, matched the Blue Jays' offer and possibly retained him, but they were reluctant to give such a long-term deal to a pitcher who turns 36 in September.
Losing him was devastating, but it's hard to argue with some of the logic; the law of averages says he probably won't pitch to last year's form again, meaning the Orioles would have overpaid for his services.
They also could have given Beck the two years he wanted at more than $4 million a season, but they were reluctant to commit to that, particularly with Benitez waiting to take over. Again, it's hard to argue. Huge money for Rod Beck? (He signed with the Cubs.)
But as much as it all makes long-term sense, the short term is problematic.
Basically, Benitez is being given the closer's job a year ahead of schedule.
nTC That's not what the Orioles wanted.
Benitez is talented, emotional and coming off a disastrous postseason, and the Orioles are so fearful of putting too much pressure on him prematurely that they have resorted to the closer committee.
It's all designed to ease the pressure on him, to keep the spotlight from shining too brightly on him.
Benitez protected 43 of the 44 leads he inherited last season as a set-up man for Myers, but he has only 15 career saves, and Miller is adamant about limiting anyone's expectations for him.
"I asked him to step up and become a setup man for Randy last year," said Miller, who was former Orioles manager Davey Johnson's pitching coach last season. "Now I want him to take another step up, not as the closer, and save 15, 20, 25 games for us this season."
The Orioles don't want Benitez compared with the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who starred as a setup man for John Wetteland in 1996, inherited Wetteland's closer's job last season and recorded 43 saves.
"If Armando steps up like that, great," Miller said. "But I'm not going to have a situation where he thinks he has to dominate or we'll lose. Because I don't think that's true. That's why I'm not naming him or anyone the closer."
If any bullpen could make such an undefined arrangement work, this is it. There is no shortage of quality, veteran arms, or interchangeable parts.
"I like the idea of saying I can give the ball to anyone [in the bullpen] with the game on the line," Miller said.
But that still doesn't compare to the advantage of having a lights-out, dominating closer who starts figuring in the game as an intimidating presence long before he throws a pitch. Few weapons are more effective.
The Orioles won't have that this season unless Benitez takes off, which they aren't asking him to do.
It's a tricky situation the Orioles fell into with their off-season decisions. Now they have to live with it.
Pub Date: 2/20/98