O's seek roster flexibility Utility of Guillen may get him final spot

March 13, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His team is 96 percent cemented with nearly three weeks remaining in camp. To keep himself awake at night, manager Ray Miller must wonder: 12 pitchers or two extra infielders?

Such problems. For many less-fortunate managers, this decision might seem like the equivalent of paper or plastic. For Miller, it may dictate how freely he can use a veteran bullpen during the early stages of a season that may begin in freezing wind chill, then weave its way through Kansas City and Detroit. It also will determine how significant a role his bench may play for a club wedded to white-knuckle games.

As of today, it comes down to whether Miller will take veteran left-hander Doug Johns or utility spark plug Ozzie Guillen.

"Right now, I'm leaning toward the player. That's for sure," Miller said. "Pitching-wise, you're one day away. You can always get somebody for tomorrow."

The sentiment bodes well for Guillen, the longtime starting shortstop for the Chicago White Sox imported to serve as emergency stand-in and left-handed bat within an aging roster. Guillen, 34, has already energized the clubhouse with his enthusiasm while Miller waits to see a more potent offensive player. A habitual first-ball hitter, Guillen stands 1-for-14. He has played second base, shortstop, first base and left field, embarrassing himself nowhere. However, his main attribute is the freedom he provides Miller to use his only other projected left-handed bench player, Harold Baines.

"If you've only got the one [lefthanded] guy on the bench, you tend to wait to take your shot," Miller says. "With a guy like Guillen there, it gives you a lot more freedom to go for something early."

The notion is a persuasive one given the Orioles' involvement in 79 games last season decided by two runs or less, including 52 by one run.

"I haven't heard anything," Guillen said Tuesday. "They know what I can do here. I'm not here to be a problem. I'm here to do whatever they need. If they don't need me, I'll go home."

The flip side to Miller's thinking is Johns, an Oakland Athletics castoff who arrived after a detour to the Italian professional leagues. A left-hander able to make significant alterations to his mechanics -- pitching coach Mike Flanagan has tutored him in a sidearm delivery that has worked wonders against left-handed bats -- Johns has emerged from obscurity to wrest the designation of 12th pitcher from Nerio Rodriguez.

"My goal is to pitch to my ability here. I came in here with an open mind. I wasn't really sure how I fit into their plans. I'm not trying to project anything. I'm letting them make the decisions," says Johns, who might have complicated Miller's decision yesterday with two scoreless innings in which he allowed one hit and one walk.

Johns, 31, compiled a 10-15 record with the A's in 1995 and '96 before being released, claimed by the Royals and released again. He played for the Parma Angels before returning to the United States to apply for a work visa. While back home, the Orioles called him to inquire whether he'd prefer pitching at Triple-A Rochester. Johns accepted and became a key element in the Red Wings' push to win the International League title.

A troubled outing in Jupiter on Saturday did nothing to diminish his appeal. While Rodriguez represents a promising alternative, the organization believes it more productive to have the 24-year-old open the season at Rochester.

Johns' role would be confined almost entirely to long relief. In its current alignment, the bullpen does not contain a pitcher well-suited to soaking up innings in blowout conditions. Mike Johnson and Shawn Boskie, both gone, performed the role last year. Pitching behind lineups configured to face a right-handed starter, Johns could represent a potent whipsaw.

Miller also wants to avoid the embarrassment of having to employ a position player in a blowout. Such situations could arise early, especially when he has committed to an unbroken five-man rotation from the outset.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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