FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When Juan Guzman is good, he is very good. But when he's bad
Most times it's because he's hurt.
Other times Guzman loses touch with his funky mechanics.
And then there have been too many days when the ex-Toronto Blue Jay couldn't buy a run, either with greenbacks or the lousy Canadian exchange.
On a reconfigured Orioles pitching staff that may go either way this season, Guzman is perhaps its biggest variable. At times during his erratic eight-year career Guzman has won 10 consecutive decisions and lost nine straight.
He led the American League in ERA by slicing it from 6.32 one season to 2.93 the next. His stuff is so awesome it not only confuses hitters but confounds his catchers. Coaches rave about his work ethic, but also wonder about his inability to hold runners or field his position.
"I've had a strange career," Guzman admitted before yesterday's rain-shortened intrasquad game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "A lot of it's been good; some of it's been not so good."
Barring the spring acquisition of a front-line arm, Guzman, 32, will enter the season as staff wild card and No. 3 starter, a role that betrayed the club last season because of Jimmy Key's irritated rotator cuff. Pitching behind innings monsters Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson, Guzman holds the key to whether the Orioles can rediscover the dominant rotation that carried them to the 1997 AL East title.
"I like his arm; I like his makeup; I like his work ethic. Beyond that, I'm not going to make judgments," said first-year Orioles pitching coach Bruce Kison, who is still familiarizing himself with a new staff.
Others within and outside the organization suggest Guzman could help himself more. He committed four errors last season and owns one of the game's most deliberate moves to the plate.
The Orioles traded for Guzman from the Blue Jays last July 31 in anticipation of launching a drive for the wild-card berth. Instead they crumbled, and Guzman suffered with them. He arrived with a 6-12 record in 22 starts and added a 4-4 record in 11 more with his new club.
In the midst of a flameout, the Orioles scored two or fewer runs in four of his 11 starts, contributing to the third-worst run support given any AL pitcher. Wary of Guzman's health history, manager Ray Miller handled him carefully, sometimes to the pitcher's distraction. While Guzman experiments this spring with a different fastball, what he really desires is better luck.
"If I would have had a little run support, things would have been different. But I just want to do my job. Everybody knows that," said Guzman, who received only 4.24 runs per nine innings pitched. (Boston's Tim Wakefield led the AL with 7.29 runs per nine innings.)
"They have to do their job; I have to do my job. In '96, when I won the ERA title, I didn't get that much run support. Finally I told myself I had to do my job no matter what. If I don't get the win, hopefully the bullpen will. I have to stay focused. If all of us do our job, this team will be in the playoffs."
Guzman made 20 consecutive starts without a defeat in 1991. He led the AL with an .824 win percentage in 1993 and at the time possessed a 40-11 career record, best in the majors.
Since, he is 40-55, including 13-22 the last two seasons, despite his league-leading ERA in 1996.
Miller hopes Guzman can "bounce back" and plans to use him more aggressively this season. "I know he didn't agree with some of the decisions I made [to pull him] last year, but it was done in his best interest," said Miller. "Hopefully, that's over. He could be a huge guy for us this season."
Said Guzman: "I've been through some tough times. I've been through injuries. I've been wild. I've had good command. By now, I should know what to do."
Staying healthy would be a start. His right shoulder has landed him on the disabled list three times the past four years. He underwent surgery in September 1997 to remove a bone spur and suffered a sluggish start last season.
"I went through a lot. I was rebuilding my shoulder and probably began the season only around 50 percent. Then I had some tough luck. Everything was a struggle. But for me, that's in the past. Everything up to now has been great. My shoulder is great. My family is great. It's going to be a lot different this year," he said.
Some believe Guzman's unconventional over-the-top delivery places excessive strain on his right shoulder, which has permitted him only three 200-inning seasons in a 14-year professional career.
Last season Guzman finished with 211 innings, causing an option in his contract to vest for $5.5 million. Rather than exercise his right to demand a trade -- leverage any player dealt during a multi-year contract enjoys -- Guzman chose to remain with the Orioles. Had he made the demand and the Orioles not traded him by March 15, Guzman would have automatically become a free agent. However, the market is limited for a pricey pitcher who has averaged seven wins the last four seasons.
"It was a tough decision. But this is a good club. If I go somewhere else, I'd have to start over and get comfortable all over again. I want to stay here and work hard so I have a chance to remain with this club long-term," said Guzman, who has been assured the possibility exists for negotiating an extension sometime this season.
For him to stay, Guzman must pitch well. And if he pitches well, the Orioles can easily project themselves as a playoff entry.
"I've played with some very good teams, and when you looked at last year's team you had to think it was a good club," insisted Guzman, an integral part of back-to-back World Series championships with the 1992-93 Blue Jays. "But in baseball you need to put it all together and collectively have some luck. That team had no luck."
This year the Orioles have Juan Guzman and his luck, good or bad.
Pub Date: 3/04/99