Fussell, face in crowd, arms himself for a bid

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Though odds aren't good, pitcher works to impress

Burrows will push Johns

February 27, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Chris Fussell looks around the clubhouse and sees the numbers. Manager Ray Miller easily could pull 12 names and complete his staff, but there's always room for a little competition. And Fussell intends to engage in his share.

On paper, there's no room for Fussell on the major-league roster. If everything falls into place, the rotation will consist of Opening Day starter Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Juan Guzman, Scott Kamieniecki and Sidney Ponson.

The bullpen will include right-handers Mike Timlin, Heathcliff Slocumb, Mike Fetters and Ricky Bones, and left-handers Jesse Orosco, Arthur Rhodes and Doug Johns.

So how can Fussell, who had two starts among his three September appearances with the Orioles last season, avoid a return ticket to Triple-A Rochester?

Fetters was signed to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training, so he didn't come with any guarantees. He's an overwhelming favorite to stick with the club, but Fussell could force Miller into a difficult decision. And there's always the chance he could pitch so well once the games begin that the manager revises his plans for the rotation.

"I go out there and try to do the best I can," said Fussell, 22, who began last season at Bowie before joining Rochester in July and the Orioles two months later. "They know what I can do, and hopefully I throw well enough this spring that I can make the team."

Fussell made his major-league debut against Texas on Sept. 15 as a late replacement for Ponson, who couldn't start because of a blister on his pitching hand. The Oregon native responded with five solid innings, leaving with a 5-1 lead that evaporated in a 6-5 loss.

The inconsistency that has hampered Fussell through much of his career struck in his other start, Sept. 25 in Boston, in which he allowed four runs in 1 2/3 innings.

Club officials want to see Fussell become more economical with his pitches, believing his stuff is too good to labor over.

"I worked on that out in Arizona [in the fall league], throwing more strikes and getting people out within three pitches so I can go deeper into the game," he said.

Johns competition

When the Orioles broke camp last March, they didn't take along a reliever who could enter a game early and gobble up innings. And the ensuing problems ate at Miller.

The solution came with the addition of Johns, whose contract was purchased from Rochester on April 20. Johns appeared in 31 games, including 10 starts, and went 3-3 with a 4.57 ERA in 86 2/3 innings.

Miller often praised him, but Johns doesn't assume that he's a lock to make the club this spring. Maybe that's because Miller has been just as enthusiastic lately about another left-hander in camp, Terry Burrows, who is posing a challenge to Johns.

"That's not even stuff I worry about," Johns said. "I just worry about preparing for the season, the first game. That's everybody's goal, to be ready April 5. Everybody's got a job to do."

Otanez earns at-bats

As Miller was sending his young players to the minor-league camp last spring, he challenged them to return the following year with their stats in hand. Forget just talking about wanting to make the club. Show that you deserve to be considered. Earn the opportunity.

Few players in the farm system took those words to heart like third baseman/outfielder Willis Otanez, who hit .285 with 27 homers and 100 RBIs at Rochester before joining the Orioles in August. Otanez, 25, made his big-league debut on Aug. 25, singling off Chicago's Tom Fordham in his first at-bat, but broke his left wrist two nights later while diving for a ball in right field.

Though keeping the wrist taped, he was healthy enough to have played in the Dominican Republic this winter, joining his team for the last two regular-season games and the playoffs. "It's back to 100 percent," he said.

Keeping his word, Miller said he'll give Otanez some extra at-bats at third base, which will cut into Ryan Minor's playing time there. But is there a place for him on the roster if he produces this spring as he did at Rochester, considering he's out of options?

"It creates a tremendous problem," Miller said. "It doesn't mean Ryan won't play some third in spring training, but I'm going to lean a little more toward the guy who drove in 100 runs."

Otanez's chances of making the club would be reduced even more if Miller brings 12 pitchers north, which he's leaning toward doing after taking 11 last spring and keeping Ozzie Guillen on the roster as an extra utility player.

"Having that extra guy on the bench allows you to do a lot of things," Miller said, "but do you go with 11 pitchers unless you've got five [starters] who are pretty consistent and are going to go six or seven innings?

"It should be 12 pitchers, but then again, who knows? Maybe three weeks from now the five guys are throwing so good and they're healthy, and let's start the season with 11. If we get in a bind, we'll call someone up."

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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