Mercedes makes pitch for spot

Journeyman competing for fifth-starter role

March 07, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- When you're a 29-year-old minor-league free agent, every day is an audition, but journeyman pitcher Jose Mercedes is just happy that there might be a part for him to play in the Orioles' rotation.

The temporary absence of injured No. 2 starter Scott Erickson has created a wide-open competition for the fifth-starter role, and Mercedes made his presence felt in yesterday's 17-3 exhibition victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Holman Stadium.

He pitched two scoreless innings and made an unexpected additional contribution, an RBI single in the five-run fourth inning that put the Orioles on the road to a rout.

Not a bad way to make a good early impression. It was his second scoreless outing of the Grapefruit League season.

"It's always nice to do that," Mercedes said, "especially when you're fighting for a job."

It looks like it could turn into an interesting fight. Minor-league prospect Calvin Maduro got the first opportunity to audition when he subbed for Erickson in the exhibition opener against the Cincinnati Reds. He pitched two scoreless innings and is considered the player to beat among a list of fifth-starter candidates that also includes Radhames Dykhoff and hot pitching prospect Matt Riley.

"It's wide open," said manager Mike Hargrove.

Mercedes might be the sentimental favorite, because he is trying to reconstruct his career after a damaged rotator cuff cost him a chance to establish himself in the Milwaukee Brewers' rotation two years ago. He knocked around Triple-A last season and caught the attention of Orioles Latin American coordinator Carlos Bernhardt with a solid performance in the Dominican Winter League.

"He was a respectable pitcher in the big leagues before he had major arm surgery," said Orioles director of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "He pitched for three different teams last year, but that was because he had a clause in his contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he didn't make the big-league roster in a certain amount of time.

"He pitched for Estrellas in the Dominican Republic this winter and Carlos kept telling us how his arm has come back -- how he was throwing 93-94 miles per hour."

The Orioles took a chance and signed him to a minor-league contract in December.

What did they have to lose?

Mercedes had everything to gain. The Orioles already had three starters entrenched in the rotation, but they were having trouble signing one more front-line pitcher. Mercedes could see an opening.

"Exactly, that's why I signed here," he said. "I figured that I'd have an opportunity to make the ballclub."

That opening only got wider when the club learned that Erickson would be lost until at least May 1 after elbow surgery. Barring a late spring deal for another starter, one of the four current candidates figures to get at least four or five starts in April -- perhaps more if projected No. 3 starter Jason Johnson or No. 4 starter Pat Rapp falter.

"He [Mercedes] signed a Rochester contract, but Carlos thought he had a chance to pitch up here," Thrift said. "He was one of the top pitchers in the Dominican. Another thing Carlos was telling me was, he wasn't throwing a lot of pitches. He made it look simple."

If there is some question whether Mercedes will be durable enough to hold a place in the starting rotation, he feels he settled that with his performance in the minor leagues and winter ball.

"My body is back in great condition," he said. "I pitched about 230 innings over the full year. I know that I'm totally healthy again. That's what I need to pitch in this league."

By all accounts, he threw very well yesterday, facing seven batters, giving up just one hit.

"His ball was sinking really well," said veteran first baseman Will Clark. "He was throwing the ball good, keeping it down and he had some movement. With Erickson down, we've got a legitimate battle now. OK, let's see who wins."

The RBI single got him some high fives from his teammates, but it wasn't the highlight of the day. In fact, Mercedes said yesterday that if he never picked up a bat again, it would be too soon.

"That scares me," he said. "That's how I got injured in 1998. I was on first base and I had to dive back to first base when [Fernando] Vina hit a line drive to first. I twisted to avoid the first baseman and that's when I hurt my shoulder. I went from throwing 91-92 miles per hour to throwing 79 or 80. I pitched four more games and then shut it down.

"If that hadn't happened, I would be in a better position right now. That cost me a couple of years of baseball."

Mercedes is trying to get them back, but the competition is just beginning.

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