O's leaky 'pen leaves black mark on Wren

July 07, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

You can't hold him responsible for a manager that he isn't allowed to fire. You can't hold him responsible for free-agent signings that weren't necessarily his idea. But general manager Frank Wren can't avoid responsibility for the Orioles' bullpen.

It isn't his responsibility alone. Virtually every reliever merits blame. And manager Ray Miller certainly warrants scrutiny when every departed reliever from his 1998 club is performing better this season -- as is Heathcliff Slocumb, who was released April 30, and now has a 2.81 ERA in 12 games with St. Louis.

The bullpen actually looked better last night -- Arthur Rhodes escaped a none-out bases-loaded jam, and Jesse Orosco finally retired Toronto's Darrin Fletcher, who had hit two three-run homers against him. Miller even praised Mike Timlin, but the free-agent bust suffered his eighth loss, a 4-3 defeat in 10 innings.

It was Wren who signed Timlin for $16 million over four years to be the Orioles' closer, Wren who cost the team $1.75 million by signing the injured Xavier Hernandez, Wren who tried to fill the right-handed void by signing Slocumb, Ricky Bones and Mike Fetters.

Of course, any criticism of Wren comes back to the man who hired him, owner Peter Angelos. And Wren defends himself by saying that Timlin was the best closer available, and that he attempted to sign left-handers Scott Radinsky and Dennis Cook and right-hander Jeff Montgomery, among others.

"We tried to sign a half-dozen guys and came up empty," said Wren last night. "We made competitive offers to Cook and Radinsky, close to what they got. In both cases, they wanted to stay in the National League. We couldn't get all the people we wanted."

Wren, however, strongly disputed a published report in Sunday's Boston Globe that said he created "issues" with Angelos by failing to re-sign Alan Mills, and "[ignoring] the Timlin medical problems that the owner's doctors claimed showed up after the signing."

"He has no medical problems," Wren said. "The guy throws 98 mph. He does not have medical problems, did not have medical problems, has not had any medical problems in three years. I don't know where that stuff comes from."

Said Timlin, who worked 1 2/3 innings last night and has not been on the disabled list since 1995: "You could call it outright blatant lies, and if anyone wants to challenge me on that, they can stand right where you [reporters] are or call me."

Timlin, however, likely would be Exhibit A if Angelos wanted to build a case against Wren. Jeff Shaw would have been the top closer available last winter, but he re-signed with Los Angeles. Rod Beck was another option, but the Orioles wanted no part of an overweight closer coming off an NL-high 81 appearances -- and Beck is now on the disabled list.

Enter Timlin.

He converted 18 of 19 saves in the second half of last season for Seattle. But he had never closed successfully for a team in contention. And he became the first reliever in Orioles history to receive a four-year contract, with Wren citing two unnamed teams that were willing to go that far.

"Closers don't come into pro ball as closers, and continue to close and be successful," Wren said. "You create them. Timlin had been successful setting up. He had saved 30 games in a year. And all of a sudden, it looked like he was coming into his own. He was the kind of guy you go after. We felt he was the best guy out there."

Well, Timlin has blown eight of 17 save opportunities, and the rest of the bullpen has been nearly as ineffective. Wren said he wanted to re-sign Mills, but not to the three-year, $6.5 million contract he received from Los Angeles. And the GM knew he would create another hole by trading Armando Benitez for Charles Johnson.

Hernandez was supposed to replace Mills, but his physical revealed a partial tear of his rotator cuff -- and the resulting settlement proved perhaps Wren's greatest embarrassment. Slocumb, Bones and Fetters were lesser right-handed options. Rhodes, Jesse Orosco and Doug Johns returned as the left-handers.

The question is, how much better would the Orioles be with a more effective bullpen? Well, they wouldn't be 34-48. But if they had, say, nine blown saves instead of 19, they still would be under .500.

The better question is, how much better would the bullpen be under a different manager? Twice in two seasons, Rhodes has complained of overuse. Other relievers grumble privately that Miller constantly warms them up without using them in games, wearing them down.

Mills, a pitcher who was allergic to anti-inflammatory medication, was sensitive to such concerns. Just last weekend, Bones went on the disabled list with a tired arm. And Miller was using Timlin in the eighth inning earlier this season when most closers are asked to pitch only the ninth.

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