Orioles' fifth spot puts number in mix

Pitching: Pat Rapp, Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes are ready to step up when Mike Hargrove needs to go to another starter.

February 24, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It won't happen the first week of the season, but soon after, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove will call upon his fifth starter. He knows the date. He just needs to come up with a name.

Pat Rapp? He was signed as a free agent in January with those responsibilities in mind.

Jose Mercedes? He brings some experience, a sound arm and a glowing report from the Dominican Republic.

Calvin Maduro? He has limited time on the job. Most pressing, he has no options.

Radhames Dykhoff? Matt Riley? They're in the mix. They'd much prefer to be in the rotation.

Hargrove's revelation that he'll probably head north with an 11-man staff indicates a bullpen role for Rapp until April 9 against the Detroit Tigers. Perhaps then he'll be given the ball. Or, just maybe, he'll be given some disturbing news.

"To me, as long as I keep pitching and stay healthy and throw well, I should be starting. There's no doubt in my mind," said Rapp, who made 26 starts among his 37 appearances with the Boston Red Sox last season.

"I'm not necessarily looking at a fifth spot. I'm just looking beyond the first two. And I'm just trying to stay healthy and get in a little bit better shape. That's what everybody else is trying to do, too."

For his part, Hargrove is keeping an open mind. He'll let the games here determine a winner, though he conceded yesterday that Rapp probably has the inside track.

"I don't think there's a prototypical fifth starter," Hargrove said. "You look for a guy who keeps you in a ballgame and gives you a chance to win. Someone who gives you five or seven innings and will win anywhere from eight to 12 ballgames."

Someone different from Doug Linton, who earned the chance with an impressive showing in camp last spring. He ended up splitting the season between the majors and Triple-A Rochester, going 1-4 with a 5.95 ERA in eight starts with the Orioles.

By the end of September, and another disappointing season, the Orioles' list of fifth starters also included Jason Johnson and Doug Johns. Johnson moved up to fourth after Juan Guzman was traded, and Johns moved out of the club's plans for this year after twice being arrested on drug and alcohol charges.

Even in 1997, when the Orioles went wire-to-wire to win the AL East and appear in their second consecutive League Championship Series, they never were able to find a dependable fifth starter within a group that included Shawn Boskie and Rocky Coppinger.

Neither pitcher remains in the organization. Maduro could follow them out the door if the Orioles attempt to pass him through waivers before returning him to Rochester, where he posted 11 wins last season and ranked second in the International League with 149 strikeouts.

"I'd hope somebody would pick me up and I could still be in the big leagues, but if it doesn't work like that, I'll go back to Rochester and work my way back up. That's all I can do," he said.

Maduro, 25, began his professional career with the Orioles in 1992, but didn't crack the majors until after being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996. He came north the following season as the club's No. 5 starter, a reward that was pulled from him in late May. He was sent to the bullpen, then to Triple-A Scranton, before making three more starts with the Phillies. After allowing 16 earned runs in 13 innings, he was shipped back to the minors for good.

"I feel more ready now than I did when I was in camp in '97 and the fifth spot was open," he said. "I feel more confident right now, more focused. And I'm in the best shape I've ever been in. I'm just taking it day by day. I can't think about what's going to happen six weeks from now. I can only think about what's going to happen tomorrow."

Maduro's agent kept him posted on the Orioles' off-season maneuverings, including the acquisition of Rapp. "He just told me to come into camp and work hard and see what happens," Maduro said. "I know there are a lot of good pitchers here so it's going to be hard."

The foundation for Mercedes' bid to join the rotation was laid in the Dominican Republic, where he went 5-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 10 starts this winter. Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, kept floating Mercedes' name to reporters as a viable alternative to signing a pricey free agent.

Once the Orioles' property before being lost in the Rule 5 draft, Mercedes signed a minor-league contract in December with the understanding that there could be room for him in Baltimore.

"Otherwise, I would have signed with someone else," he said. "I'm not 21 years old. I'm 29. I'm here to find a spot and be able to pitch in the big leagues, which I know I can."

His right shoulder, and circumstances, wouldn't allow it the past two years. Mercedes was limited to seven games with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1998 and needed arthroscopic surgery to clean up his rotator cuff. He pitched for three organizations last season, never rising above Triple-A.

"I'm 100 percent recovered, without a doubt. It's time for me to go back to where I think I belong," said Mercedes, who spent parts of five seasons with the Brewers.

"I know it's going to be tough because there are a lot of people competing for just one spot. We'll see who has the best luck."

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