Ryan will do anything to make pitch for O's

Left-hander agreeable to any role assigned

March 10, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Within a clubhouse full of known quantities, no one better represents the possibilities for the Orioles' future than a hulking, soft-spoken left-hander who less than three years ago was considered undraftable as a college junior.

No one in camp has come farther faster than B. J. Ryan.

Nor has anyone taken a less predictable route than a talent who once considered himself a power-hitting first baseman until educated about the misleading properties of an aluminum bat.

Ryan, 24, has played for five affiliates of two different franchises since being selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 17th round following his senior year at Southwestern Louisiana. Only 13 months after the 1998 amateur draft, Ryan arrived last July in a trade deadline deal that sent Orioles pending free-agent pitcher Juan Guzman to the Cincinnati Reds. Guzman has since signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Ryan remains with the Orioles waiting to break out.

"I'm willing to do anything," says Ryan, still smitten by the idea of beginning the season in a major-league clubhouse. "If they need me to go lefty-on-lefty, if they need me to throw two or three innings. I just want to pitch. I just want to be here."

The Orioles would have it no other way. They procured Ryan after then-director of player personnel Syd Thrift watched him throw at last July's Futures Game in Boston. Reds general manager Jim Bowden, anxious to secure starting pitching help for a pennant drive, parted with Ryan and 17-year-old reliever Jacobo Sequea. The deal represented a significant step in the Orioles' replenishing a depleted minor-league system.

But already Ryan represents a tonic for a remade bullpen. Along with veterans Buddy Groom and Chuck McElroy, Ryan craves work. He led the minor leagues in appearances before being promoted to Cincinnati last July 26 and has averaged more than an inning in 104 appearances covering less than two full seasons. A position player's mentality drives him.

As a junior, Ryan served as a starting pitcher and a big-swinging first baseman for his college team. Undrafted, he was open to a move to the bullpen as a senior and immediately stirred interest.

Watching major-league hitters every day, Ryan laughs at his initial reluctance to abandon life as a position player. "I look at these guys every day and it's unbelievable. There's no way I would have been drafted as anything but a pitcher," he says, laughing at the absurdity.

Orioles pitching coach Sammy Ellis served as Reds pitching coordinator until being named to Hargrove's staff last Dec. 3. He remembers Ryan needing only 17 appearances to progress from Rookie League to Double-A Chattanooga in 1998. The left-hander needed less than four months last season to make another two-step move to the National League.

"Once you get drafted, you could be a first-rounder or you could be a 30th-rounder. It's what you do on the field that counts. That's what people are going to see. I just went out wanting to impress people," Ryan said.

Ryan remains mindful of the advice given him by Reds scout Johnny Almarez, the man responsible for his selection in 1998: "If you want to pitch in the big leagues as a lefty, you challenge people inside and you make sure you throw strikes."

"He seems to have the ability of turning it up when he gets into a jam," says Rochester pitching coach Larry McCall, who witnessed Ryan's 11 appearances with the Red Wings before the left-hander received an Aug. 27 promotion to Baltimore. "He retains command when he reaches for more velocity. That's one of the things that makes him impressive."

Reluctant to describe his three-pitch assortment as overpowering, Ryan is precise enough to have walked only 36 against 129 strikeouts in 104 1/3 minor-league innings. He is also explosive enough to have struck out 28 in only 18 1/3 innings during last season's four-week trial with the Orioles.

Mostly, Ryan watched and learned. He pumped graybeardJesse Orosco on how to prepare, observed Mike Timlin's second-half aggressiveness and admired Mike Mussina's unflappability. Ryan remembers his early days as a demonstrative first-year player with a hint of embarrassment. He now knows poise is its own reward at this level.

Ryan possesses what McCall describes as a "funky" delivery in which he makes an exaggerated turn from the plate then corkscrews his left elbow on his push to the plate. The combination makes it difficult for hitters to find the ball. Ryan's 6-foot-6 frame only makes the task more punishing.

"It works for him and he has terrific control, so why mess with it?" asks McCall.

There are no plans to tinker with Ryan. Hargrove dismisses a description of Ryan as a "wild card," insisting his spot on the staff is safe. Less certain is whether Ryan will inherit the left-handed specialist role created by the trade of Orosco or the left-handed long relief role created by the defection of free-agent Arthur Rhodes.

"He could be a matchup guy, or he could be the guy you bring in to face four or five hitters in an inning," says Hargrove. "I think he's got the kind of stuff where you could let him face a right-hander between two left-handed hitters instead of running three guys in there."

Ryan's intimidating presence, his absence of emotion and his 94-mph fastball make him a possible closer-in-waiting. Unlike his new employer, he enjoys the luxury of time.

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