Whoa, woes: Pitching also O's concern

March 25, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For $70 million, you'd think the Orioles could buy peace of mind. Not in this nerve-racking game. Not in this pitching-thin era.

Scott Kamieniecki suffers back spasms, Terry Mathews allows three more runs and suddenly the Orioles are in the same position as every other club.

Worried about their pitching.

Oh, they're not exactly the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but they could use a reliever now, a starter later and maybe both before the season is over.

Their rotation includes only two likely 200-inning starters. Their bullpen includes the unsteady Mathews and two other questionable middle-inning relievers.

Already, manager Ray Miller plans to break up Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson after the first turn through the rotation, a move that reflects a lack of confidence in the other three starters and concern over the relievers.

Miller fears that pitching Jimmy Key, Kamieniecki and Doug Drabek consecutively might exhaust his bullpen. It's the right idea putting one of them -- probably Key -- between Mussina and Erickson.

Remember, the Orioles expect to keep infielder Ozzie Guillen rather than a 12th pitcher. They don't know if Armando Benitez can close. And they don't know if they'll even take as many leads into the late innings.

They outscored opponents, 214-145, in the sixth and seventh last season, a statistic that reflected their ability to dominate weak bullpens and to bridge the gap from the starters to Benitez and Randy Myers when necessary.

That gap might increase if Key, Kamieniecki and Drabek struggle to pitch deep into games. And that statistic won't be nearly as impressive if the middle-inning relievers don't perform as capably as Arthur Rhodes did last season.

Of course, almost every other team faces similar questions. The Yankees' rotation, in fact, might be even more suspect than the Orioles'. Who knows about David Cone? About Hideki Irabu? About David Wells, for that matter?

The Indians? Same sorry rotation.

The Mariners? Same sorry bullpen.

The Orioles can argue that their starting pitching is essentially the same as it was to open 1997, with Drabek replacing Shawn Boskie. They can argue that their bullpen also is largely intact, with Norm Charlton replacing Randy Myers.

They can argue that Key was an even bigger question at this time a year ago, that Kamieniecki was an unknown quantity, that Boskie didn't inspire nearly as much confidence as Drabek.

Still, not all is going swimmingly at Camp Happy.

Key pitched five innings for the first time this spring on Monday. Kamieniecki has pitched five only once, and was scratched from yesterday's start with back spasms.

Drabek? He has been terrific, but he allowed 30 homers and averaged 5 1/3 innings per start for the Chicago White Sox last season. Let's see him at Camden Yards.

The obvious solution for a team with doubts about its rotation is to strengthen its middle-inning relief and avoid extending certain starters beyond five or six innings.

The Orioles would trade for a quality middle man right now if they could. But most likely, they'll start the season with what they have and see what happens.

With Benitez, Rhodes and Jesse Orosco expected to work exclusively in the late innings, the sixth and seventh likely will belong to Mathews, Alan Mills and Charlton.

Mathews, a right-hander with a 7.59 spring ERA and dysfunctional relationship with the Camden Yards faithful.

Mills, a righty with a history of injury and inconsistency.

Charlton, a lefty coming off a disastrous season in Seattle.

Mills has thrown fairly well this spring, and Charlton produced his third straight impressive one-inning performance yesterday. But really, the Orioles can't be sure of what they're getting.

They will have options at Rochester -- left-hander Doug Johns and right-handers Sidney Ponson and Nerio Rodriguez, who started in place of Kamieniecki yesterday and pitched five strong innings.

But again, will it be enough?

Even in the best-case scenario, with the bullpen stable and the back end of the rotation productive, the Orioles still might need to pursue another starter in July.

One club official said that even if Key, Kamieniecki and Drabek pitched well early, it would be wise for the Orioles to plan for diminished returns in the second half -- especially after the way Key declined last season.

Which pitcher would be the odd man out? It would depend on performance. Drabek is a Miller favorite. Kamieniecki just signed a two-year, $6.2 million contract. Key is completing a two-year, $7 million deal.

These are the questions the Orioles don't want to consider, and don't yet need to consider. But in one form or another, they're going to surface, probably sooner instead of later.

Key, Kamieniecki, Drabek.

Mathews, Mills, Charlton.

Maybe they'll all be fine. Maybe they'll pitch the Orioles to the World Series.

But even for $70 million, a team can't buy all the answers.

That's the scary part. And that's baseball.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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