Bullpen act turns into freak show

July 03, 1999|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK -- You can almost hear the barker beckoning outside the freak show tent: "Come on in and see the Incredible Melting Bullpen! No lead is safe in here! Watch one shocker after another!"

It's gotten that bad for the Orioles' relief corps. They'd fit right in on a state fair midway, in between the world's smallest man and woman.

"Implosions! Catastrophes! You won't believe your eyes!"

An exaggeration? Maybe. But not much of one. The bullpen wasn't responsible for last night's 2-1 loss to the Yankees, but it's still on pace to set a major-league record for blown saves.

It's a bullpen that's converted 13 of 31 save chances -- a surreal statistic topping all others as an explanation for the Orioles' sorry state.

Let's see, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera has blown one save and the Orioles have blown 18.

And you still have to ask what's wrong with the Orioles?

Yes, they also have numerous other problems; a team can't land in last place on July 3 without an assortment of flaws.

But the bullpen is the biggest.

"Watch enormous leads vanish! See a major-league manager pop like a balloon! Best bargain on the midway, folks, right in here!"

And what's really remarkable is how little can be done, at least in the immediate sense.

The club took a stab yesterday, signing Red Sox reject Jim Corsi to a Triple-A contract and calling up Gabe Molina from Rochester to replace Ricky Bones, who was sent to the disabled list with an injury labeled "arm fatigue." (Meaning that his arm was tired, not that the club was tired of looking at his arm. If the latter were the case, manager Ray Miller would have the whole bullpen shipped to the DL.)

Molina will be in uniform today and Corsi is a lock to arrive soon, but how much difference can they make?

How much difference can anyone make coming from pitching-thin Rochester or the waiver wire?

In a year when too many major-league pitchers already can't get anyone out -- witness the AL's overall 4.93 ERA -- those on the outside aren't going to help much.

Arthur Rhodes is the only guy with any value, and his ERA is up to 6.00 after several poor outings. He won't bring that much in return, not by himself.

Still, something drastic has to be done after the total collapse in Toronto earlier this week, in which the bullpen completed the rare trifecta of blowing all three games of a three-game series. Enough already. Do something crazy. What's to lose?

Mike Timlin? He's obviously miscast in the closer's role here. He's a quality pitcher who had a 3.52 career ERA coming into this season, but anointing him the closer was a stretch to begin with, and the pressure has gotten to him. Time to make him a setup man again. Period. Just forget how much he's being paid, give him the job he has handled before and don't let him near the ninth inning. He can contribute that way.

Who pitches the ninth? There's a tricky question. Rhodes' arm isn't up to the grind. Jesse Orosco is getting pounded. Anyone else out there?

Well, desperate times call for desperate measures. How about Rocky Coppinger?

The former rising star of the organization is floundering on the major-league fringes, with some in the organization officially tired of his headstrong act, but he has talent and guts and, at this point, it wouldn't hurt to see what happened.

Making him a long reliever was a terrible idea because Coppinger is a guy who isn't going to thrive unless he feels important. Giving him the ball in the ninth would accomplish that. If he blew up, fine, whatever. He couldn't do worse than eight blown saves by early July. And maybe he'd do better.

Of course, what's really needed are long-term solutions, not Band-Aids on a lost season. This is a bullpen that needs to be torn up and rebuilt for 2000 and beyond. New arms, please. New roles, please. A new beginning, please.

It took a village to get the 'pen to this point. Former GM Pat Gillick signed the aging Orosco to a multi-year deal and laid the groundwork for Alan Mills' defection. Current GM Frank Wren blew the Xavier Hernandez signing and gave Timlin a four-year deal. The farm system failed to help, as usual.

If he's still around, Wren needs to make this his No. 1 priority in the off-season. The time has come to spend some free-agent money on the bullpen.

No, those are never sexy signings; the talk show switchboards don't light up when you give $8 million to some obscure innings-chewer from the Giants.

But such signings can end up being just as important as the ones that make headlines. Sometimes, they're more important.

The alternative is to try to patch a 'pen together and, well, if you don't know what that looks like, just step right up and take a look at the Incredible Melting Bullpen.

And be prepared to cover your eyes.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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