Riley whets appetite with taste of majors

Inside the Orioles

Club wants to determine likelihood of left-hander joining rotation in 2000

September 05, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Future, minus the earrings, arrives at Camden Yards today. When Matt Riley slips into the Orioles' clubhouse, an otherwise tasteless September will suddenly offer more than false hope.

General manager Frank Wren did Orioles fans a favor on Thursday by ordering Riley's contract purchased from Double-A Bowie. The 20-year-old left-hander was assigned a spot on the major-league roster, a turn in the rotation for the rest of the season and all the scrutiny he can handle.

By day's end the Orioles will announce the balance of their call-ups, including Jesse Garcia, Calvin Pickering, etc. On Thursday afternoon, Wren notified Riley of the organization's decision. Riley was predictably ecstatic. Even more predictably, Wren was cautious.

"I just told him to come here, get a taste of what it's all about, get an understanding of the big leagues and that the reason we're doing it now is we think he has a chance to be with us next year," Wren said.

The Orioles have attempted to insulate Riley from the hype and outsized expectations that will certainly greet him at the clubhouse door this afternoon. An announcement was withheld until after Thursday night's win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. By then, what might have been a headline event was overshadowed by Cal Ripken's 400th home run. More importantly, Riley was able to escape Bowie for Akron without being inundated by the Baltimore media. At least that's what the club believed.

Such enthusiasm over a pitching prospect represents a significant shift in organizational thinking made possible because of recent drafts and the influence of director of player development Tom Trebelhorn. Riley also provides credibility to a franchise that has previously oversold Nerio Rodriguez, Rocky Coppinger, Jimmy Haynes and Esteban Yan while annually using minor-league free agents to form the spine of its Triple-A pitching staff.

While Sidney Ponson's arrival was a necessary start last season, Riley gives the Orioles a chance at having developed a majority of their rotation by 2001 if not 2000.

Should Riley stick next spring, 60 percent of the rotation would be 26 or younger with Scott Erickson, 32, its oldest member.

"It goes along with a lot of things," Wren said. "But we've really got to start looking toward the future."

Riley will start Thursday in Minnesota and Sept. 13 at Camden Yards against the Oakland Athletics. Not since the arrival of Mike Mussina has a rookie start been this widely anticipated.

Riley was made the Orioles' third-round pick in 1997, the same draft in which the Orioles took catcher Jayson Werth and Colorado two-sport star Darnell McDonald.

Riley chose not to sign initially and attended Sacramento Junior College. Riley then became a draft-and-follow success story in May 1998 when scouting director Gary Nickels and West Coast scout Ed Sprague persuaded him to sign for $175,000 instead of returning to the '98 draft pool.

When manager Ray Miller saw him throw in the Camden Yards bullpen, he asked the California kid with sunshine hair whether he had brought a tie along for the Orioles' next road trip. Miller was exaggerating but only slightly.

There are those within numer- ous organizations who see Riley's coachability, mechanics and talent and draw comparisons to Steve Avery, perhaps the most precocious high school talent of the past 15 years.

The Atlanta Braves drafted and signed Avery away from a Stanford scholarship in June 1988 and within two years (and 49 minor-league appearances) watched him make his major-league debut at Riverfront Stadium. Avery was then 20, went 3-11 with a 5.64 ERA for a horrid Braves team undergoing a front-office shift. He emerged in 1991 to win 18 games and the NLCS Most Valuable Player Award.

Riley is 20, has not been stopped at any level, and because of an improved off-speed assortment has been judged ready to make an impressive jump only weeks after the Orioles were convinced he was better off participating in the Arizona Fall League rather than the American League this season. Riley has made 42 minor-league starts the past two years.

Through this move -- "a very big decision" in which Wren insisted on getting input from every executive within player development -- the Orioles hope to learn about Riley sooner than later. They have to.

After two years of calamitous pitching luck, the Orioles must determine whether they must search this winter for an established major-league starter or pursue "insurance," such as an adaptable veteran able to start and relieve, or a six-year free agent who could serve as an emergency fifth starter. Having Riley participate in a "developmental" league would not provide the same yardstick, Wren insists.

"I think if we believe he has any chance of being in our rotation next year coming out of spring training that this will be a big boost for him," Wren said. "That's the crux of the decision."

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