O's should put time on Riley's side

May 26, 1999|By John Eisenberg

BOWIE -- Someone asked Matt Riley when he expected a promotion to the Orioles. He responded with a high, hard fastball.

"I'd like to be up in the next couple of months," he said, "if things keep going well. If not, September."

It's a temptation, for sure. The Orioles are desperate for a left-handed starter, and Riley is their best pitching prospect since Mike Mussina.

But it's a temptation the Orioles should resist -- if they want another Mussina, that is, instead of another Rocky Coppinger.

They should think of Riley only as a long-term investment to be carefully nurtured, not a quick fix to a short-term problem such as an $84 million disaster of a season.

Riley is the real deal; there's little doubt of that. In his first start for Double-A Bowie on Monday night after a promotion from Single-A last week, he threw a 91 mph fastball, a fine changeup and a curveball so sharp the umpire missed several strike calls on it. He struck out eight and allowed three runs in seven innings, and his catcher, former Oriole Cesar Devarez, said: "I've been catching for 10 years, and I haven't seen many guys who can pitch like that."

Point made. But the Orioles need to be oh-so careful. Riley, 19, is just two years removed from his graduation from Liberty Union High School in Northern California. He's polished, but he has thrown only 140 pro innings.

Mussina threw more innings than that in the minors -- 178, to be precise -- even though he signed with the Orioles after a stellar college career at Stanford and didn't need much seasoning.

Coppinger, who signed out of high school, threw 333 innings in the minors before breaking through at age 22 with 10 wins in 1996, but even that track probably was too fast for him. He has since had shoulder and emotional problems, and now, at age 25, is just a marginal major-leaguer.

Those are cautionary tales. The moral? No matter how slowly you think you need to go with a talented, young pitcher, you should go even slower.

If the Orioles don't show patience for a change with Riley, they're committing sporting suicide.

"Arms like Matt's don't come along very often," said Bowie pitching coach Dave Schmidt, another former Oriole.

It's a tricky situation because Riley is brimming with a youthful confidence you don't want to break.

"I played baseball, football and basketball in high school," he said Monday night, "and I was good in all of them."

What about the plate umpire who, according to Riley, admitted on the field Monday night that he couldn't keep track of Riley's curve?

"No big deal. I've run into that a lot," Riley said. "It happens when you have a curve that breaks like mine."

He later added: "Once you reach Double-A, your learning phase of your career is over, really. I already can throw all three of my pitches for strikes in any count. I just need to pitch now."

You want that swagger reaching Baltimore intact.

With his dyed blond hair, his assortment of earrings and tattoos -- including a tattoo of a blazing fastball on his right shoulder -- and his smiling nonchalance, Riley could be the air freshener needed to invigorate the Orioles' moldy clubhouse. (Why did he wear uniform No. 7 in his Bowie debut? A tribute to Mickey Mantle? Cal Sr.? No. "I'm just a low-number guy," Riley said.)

But all in time, all in time.

Remember, Riley was just 8-6 at Single-A over parts of two seasons. He was dominant -- 194 strikeouts in 136 innings -- but not untouchable.

And though Double-A batters probably aren't going to fare much better, he does need more polishing.

"It's the little things you pick up along the way," Schmidt said. "A move to first. Fielding your position. Pitching in tough situations. He needs to go through that. But he never stops wanting to learn. He's driven. He's very determined to get to Baltimore and stay for a long time, and when you mix that kind of determination with his ability, who knows what he might do?"

He could get to Baltimore sooner than expected, for instance. Orioles manager Ray Miller began raising the issue as soon as Riley signed last May after spending a season at a junior college in Sacramento.

"I'd love to put a suit and tie on him [and take him on the road] right now," Miller said.

Who wouldn't love to see it? At the very least, it would inject excitement into a season gone very wrong.

But there's little to gain with the Orioles already lagging far behind the Indians and Yankees, so rushing Riley is pointless in a short-term sense.

And it's downright foolish in a long-term sense.

Give him time at Bowie, time at Rochester, time to hone his game before he hits Camden Yards and his every move is debated and analyzed.

Give him time to grow, in other words, and become the pitcher the Orioles envision.

Then, and only then, should they call him up, give him the ball and let him go.

Pub Date: 5/26/99

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