So far, so good

On Baseball

then there's the bullpen

January 09, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Though there is little question that the Orioles will be significantly improved if they complete the pending deal for free-agent starting pitcher Aaron Sele, there is one big question that remains.

Will the bullpen spoil the party?

It was, after all, the erratic bullpen that was largely responsible for last year's quick collapse. There were other big factors, of course, such as the rocky beginnings of veteran starting pitchers Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman and the injuries that hampered three-fourths of the starting infield, but the Orioles clearly suffered from the departure of hard-throwing Armando Benitez and Alan Mills as well as the frightful inconsistency of new closer Mike Timlin.

Now, the front office would like to believe that it has succeeded in shoring up the rocky relief situation, but that could be an illusion. New baseball operations vice president Syd Thrift has made several acquisitions, including setup man/closer Mike Trombley, but the bullpen lacks a single veteran pitcher who had what could accurately be described as a strong 1999 season.

Here's a quick rundown:

Timlin finished the season with a respectable 27 saves, but tied for the American League lead with nine blown save opportunities.

Trombley split time between setup relief and the closer role, converting 24 of 30 save opportunities and finishing with a 2-8 record and 4.33 ERA.

Newly signed left-hander Buddy Groom was 3-2 with a 5.09 ERA in 76 appearances for the Oakland Athletics.

Left-hander Chuck McElroy, who was acquired from the New York Mets for Jesse Orosco, was 3-1 with a 5.50 ERA in 56 games for the Mets and Colorado Rockies.

Right-hander Al Reyes was 2-3 with a 4.85 ERA after being acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in July.

Not exactly the bullpen equivalent of Murderers' Row. Barring a late-winter deal, the Orioles will go to spring camp banking that Timlin will be able to smooth out his uneven performance or -- if not -- Trombley can fill in the gaps.

Maybe it will happen that way. The addition of Sele would deepen the starting rotation, which might allow new manager Mike Hargrove to use his bullpen more efficiently than Ray Miller did when a couple of the club's top starters struggled at the outset of last season. But the Orioles have far less bullpen talent than they did two years ago, and they don't appear to have much on the minor-league horizon.

Thrift still could attempt to make a deal for a big-time closer. There were whispers of a possible Scott Erickson-for-John Wetteland deal at the GM meetings in November, but that would just create a new hole in the rotation. The Orioles figure to gamble that the upgraded rotation will be enough to elevate the entire pitching staff to a playoff-caliber level.

Beleaguered Orioles fans can only hope that they're right.

Labor pains

Major League Umpires Association director Richie Phillips refuses to go away. Even in the face of the landslide vote to form a new umpires union, he continues to petition the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the election that created a new collective bargaining unit run by rank-and-file umpires.

Phillips is trying to make the case that the new union organizers colluded with baseball management to bust the old union, when it should be obvious to all by now that Phillips already had destroyed the credibility and bargaining power of the MLUA with the idiotic resignation strategy that cost 23 umpires their jobs.

Now, he's engaged in another desperate gambit to try to keep control of a union that doesn't want him around anymore.

It isn't about what's best for the umpires. Phillips proved that when he recklessly sent a third of them into premature retirement. This is about power and self-preservation.

If he really cared about the umpires, he would not be impeding their efforts to begin bargaining for a new labor contract -- a new contract that could restore the jobs of many of the disenfranchised umpires.

The umpires made great strides under Phillips' leadership, but he is tainting his long record of success by trying to force them to keep him in place. It is time for him to bow out. He just isn't capable of doing it gracefully.

Mind games

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig isn't in a position to do much about the politically incorrect comments made by Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker, so he did the next best thing.

By ordering Rocker to undergo a psychological examination, he is sending a less-than-subtle message to disgruntled baseball fans that the volatile young pitcher is mentally unstable, thereby absolving him and Major League Baseball of responsibility for his ill-advised comments.

Selig hinted that more disciplinary action might be forthcoming after the evaluation, but don't bet on anything significant. It's going to be difficult to punish Rocker for exercising his First Amendment right to free expression, even if his comments were mean-spirited and offensive.

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