The Orioles will report to spring training Tuesday with purpose. They hope to replace a soap opera with a bullpen.
Gone are the subplots that typified a 78-84, fourth-place season that culminated in October's double firing of manager Ray Miller and first-year general manager Frank Wren. With the installation of Mike Hargrove as manager and Syd Thrift as a newly defined executive vice president of baseball operations, an underachieving franchise devoted itself this winter to overhauling a bullpen transformed from enforcer to weak link within two years.
How sweeping the purge?
When pitchers and catchers begin workouts this week, Mike Timlin will be the only holdover from last April's season-opening bullpen.
"On paper, I think we're better than just OK," Hargrove says. "The trick is transforming it into production."
The defection of free-agent left-hander Arthur Rhodes to the Seattle Mariners and a trade of Jesse Orosco to the New York stripped away the final ties to the bullpen that helped strong-arm the Orioles to the 1997 American League East title. In their place, Thrift hopes to have assembled a younger, more flexible collection through the signing of free agents Mike Trombley (three years, $7.75million) and Buddy Groom (two years, $4million) and the trade for one-time closer Chuck McElroy.
Even with a projected seventh bullpen berth still vacant , the Orioles are guaranteed six relievers who last season combined for 336 appearances and 51 major-league saves. None of the arms is yet 35.
Timlin, who will miss Rhodes and Orosco, calls this "an exciting group." Thrift compares this edition to last year's by slanting his hand, fingers pointed upward. "We've got guys whose career are headed in this direction. Last year, it may have been more like this," he says, waving his hand in a roller-coaster motion.
"I think we're as close as we can be, given the options we had," Hargrove says, citing not only additional left-handed depth but also the acquisition of pitchers willing and able to take the ball frequently.
Gone are Rhodes, the high-maintenance left-hander who could not pitch on consecutive days and had no stomach for save situations; Orosco, the 42-year-old left-hander who waived his no-trade clause to avoid a second term under Hargrove; and itinerants Doug Linton, Mike Fetters and Jim Corsi, all of whom had either signed minor-league contracts or were claimed by the Orioles after being released elsewhere.
Remember, the Orioles will pay one defective reliever, Xavier Hernandez, $1.75million through 2001 not to pitch.
A resulting rule that free agents first pass a team physical before signing is called the "X-Factor."
A durable group
The bullpen's newest members appear to enjoy a far higher ceiling. Groom, who arrived via free agency from the Oakland Athletics, appears in line to inherit Orosco's middle-inning role against left-handed hitters and can become the first pitcher in major-league history to make 70 appearances in five consecutive seasons. McElroy once closed but now seems better suited for consuming innings in middle relief. Acquired last July as part of the deal that sent pending free agent Juan Guzman to the Cincinnati Reds, hulking B.J. Ryan adds the staff's most dominant fastball to the pen's left-handed mix.
Trombley inherited the Twins' closer role after Minnesota traded Rick Aguilera last May. He converted 24 of 30 save chances, thanks largely to a more polished split-finger pitch that will be crucial to his success in claustrophobic Camden Yards.
Hargrove is hardly looking to surround Timlin's closer role with intrigue. Trombley's acquisition elicited questions about a camp competition, something the manager downplays at every suggestion.
"I would rather give the ball to one guy all the time as opposed to a committee process," Hargrove says. "Trombley closed 24 games last year, which gives us a good situation if a need arises. Timlin came out of last season with 27 saves; that's a pretty good number. He's got the stuff to be a big-time closer if he pitches [as he did in the second half] consistently."
There will be no chafing from Trombley, whose goal is to make 70 appearances in a season.
"I think my attitude is a big tribute to [manager] Tom Kelly. You've got to swallow your ego and just be ready to pitch. The bullpen's job is to make the game shorter for the manager. You get outs whether it's the second inning, ninth inning or 10th inning," Trombley says. "A lot of guys worry about their role. I come to the ballpark just wanting to pitch."
A new handler
Having planned to phone Timlin this winter, Hargrove instead waited for a face-to-face discussion this week.