O's try to scale Rockies in bid for hill help

Colorado's excess arms bring Thrift's interest with Erickson on shelf

March 05, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. -- Though the Orioles seem confident that promising Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson will be able to move up in the rotation to soften the temporary loss of veteran pitcher Scott Erickson, club officials appear to be intensifying the search for another starting pitcher.

The focus of that search is the Colorado Rockies, a team that spent the winter stockpiling pitching talent. Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift confirmed yesterday that he has had recent conversations with Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd and has dispatched two scouts to shadow the club in Arizona.

It's only logical. The Rockies acquired several starting pitchers during O'Dowd's off-season roster reconstruction, adding Rolando Arrojo, Scott Karl, Masato Yoshii and Jose Jimenez to a rotation that includes veterans Pedro Astacio and Brian Bohanon. Depending on how the exhibition season plays out, one of those starters could be made available in the next few weeks.

Thrift pointed to the surplus as the main reason for his increased interest in the Rockies, but O'Dowd's newly developed reputation as a free-wheeling deal-maker also is a factor.

"He has a history of not being afraid to trade," Thrift said.

The Orioles have made only one significant trade since Thrift replaced general manager Frank Wren -- dealing Jesse Orosco to the New York Mets for left-handed reliever Chuck McElroy -- but the recent loss of 15-game winner Erickson to elbow surgery has increased the sense of urgency in the front office.

Erickson is not expected to be lost for more than the first month of the season, but his absence has severely narrowed the club's margin for error in the starting rotation. Ponson has moved up into the No. 2 position behind Mike Mussina, with Johnson and free-agent acquisition Pat Rapp likely to fill the next two slots.

Johnson and Ponson made their 2000 exhibition debuts yesterday and got very mixed results. Johnson needed 55 pitches to get through the first three innings of the Orioles' 10-8 exhibition loss to the Florida Marlins. Ponson pitched the next three innings and surrendered five runs (three earned) on five hits. Nothing to write home about, but it's very early.

"I thought they were fine," said manager Mike Hargrove. "I thought the umpires squeezed them like they squeezed everyone else. They showed good stuff."

Several prospects will audition for the final spot in the rotation, but club officials obviously would feel better if they had at least one experienced pitcher to audition for the role.

Thrift would not say which of the Rockies starters might be available, but it seems likely to be either Jimenez or Yoshii. Astacio is considered the ace of the staff and O'Dowd had to give up a lot to acquire Karl and Arrojo in the four-team winter deal that cost the club power-hitting third baseman Vinny Castilla and three well-regarded prospects.

Of course, it's very early in the exhibition season. The Rockies could have a spring injury that turns their surplus into a life-saver, but the Orioles are laying the groundwork for a future deal if O'Dowd needs to streamline his roster later this month.

Presumably the Orioles would offer prospects in return since Colorado would be looking to reduce its major-league roster.

"What we do is get in touch with each other and tell each other who might be available to look at," Thrift said. "Maybe they won't be [available later], but you look at them. The one certain thing is, we do have a plan, despite what some people have said about us. We've had a plan from the beginning."

Major-league scout Curt Motton already is in Arizona scouting the Cactus League. Thrift said a second scout will join him and begin following the Rockies.

The Rockies might also make a reliever available when it comes time to make their final roster cuts, but Thrift said yesterday that the front office remains confident that the newly reconfigured Orioles' bullpen will be a major improvement over last year.

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