O's road leads to decision time

Rotation's turnover among biggest issues

March 15, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As the Orioles head west today for the second leg of a brutal Fort Myers-Port Charlotte-Port St. Lucie road swing (estimated tire wear: 800 miles), they take with them several questions to be answered in 16 remaining Grapefruit League games.

How to compensate for the jarring absence of Scott Erickson until at least May 1?

Delino DeShields or Jerry Hairston -- what is truth and what is consequence?

No pun intended, but who backs Cal Ripken at third base?

Is the pitching staff big enough (or needy enough) for Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes?

If necessary, can Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift concoct a more consequential trade than the December deals involving 42-year-old Jesse Orosco and utility infielder Jeff Reboulet?

A slow-forming starting rotation and a clubhouse flu bug have so far posed the biggest challenges to new manager Mike Hargrove, whose attributes include an ability to make do rather than make much ado over unexpected problems. Erickson's loss stunned him -- Hargrove thought the innings monster's tender right elbow represented nothing more than "a yellow flag" two days before Erickson flew to Los Angeles to undergo arthroscopic surgery for removal of bone chips.

Hargrove, however, understands that public lamenting accomplishes little except to hurt Thrift's posture in pursuing a trade and to suggest a lack of confidence in his leftover rotation.

Thrift is pressing for a deal while remaining coy. Asked earlier this month whether he believed the organization deep enough to compensate for Erickson's loss or in need of pursuing an alternative through trade, he said, "Yes and yes."

The next week may further clarify his decision.

Projected No. 3 starter Jason Johnson and No. 4 starter Pat Rapp have been slowed by balky mechanics and a throat infection, respectively. Johnson needs to show improvement over three outings that have left him with a 10.00 ERA and 22 base runners in nine innings pitched. Rapp has pitched five combined innings, as many as thrown Monday by six starters elsewhere.

Pitching is at a premium throughout the game. Even rich teams, such as the Atlanta Braves, now find themselves in search of depth. The Orioles are restricted by a shallow player development system that makes it difficult to surrender talents such as pitching prospect Matt Riley.

Hargrove has contemplated keeping both Maduro and Mercedes on his Opening Day staff. The two have thrown a combined 14 innings with 10 hits and two earned runs and without a walk. Given an inclination to follow a course of least resistance, the Orioles are more likely to keep Maduro if only one stays. Maduro is out of options and would be exposed to irrevocable waivers if the club tried to move him to Triple-A Rochester. Mercedes is not on the major-league roster and could be assigned without a problem. Because of his contract status and service time, Rapp must be retained or given the option of free agency.

Neither Maduro nor Mercedes would become the rotation's youngest member. De facto No. 2 starter Sidney Ponson (23) and Johnson (26) are younger than Mercedes (29). Maduro (25) is also older than his Aruban countryman, Ponson.

Hargrove's considering both Maduro and Mercedes suggests underlying bullpen concerns. Veteran Al Reyes has yet to impress and could be jeopardized by the new manager's lack of familiarity. Reyes faded badly last September and has yet to find his command this spring. The rest of the bullpen -- Mike Timlin, Mike Trombley, B. J. Ryan, Chuck McElroy and Buddy Groom -- appears set. Only the rookie Ryan lacks multiple years remaining on a contract.

Competition has been less spirited at second base, where DeShields has performed well after undergoing season-ending surgery to free an entrapped nerve in his right thigh. Hairston suffered a groin pull in an exhibition March 7. He played for the first time in a week yesterday and must clearly outpoint the veteran to secure the starting berth.

Hargrove maintains it is possible for both Hairston and Jesse Garcia to make the team, which would give the club three reserve infielders. Such an alignment would mean the absence of a fifth outfielder, though Jeff Conine is capable there.

The wait for Conine may soon be ending. Projected as Ripken's backup at third base, Conine was bedridden last weekend by the flu. There may be a connection.

As part of this spring's sink-or-swim experiment at third, Conine put stress on his right shoulder while throwing from the new position. Tendinitis in his right rotator cuff led him to accept a cortisone injection. Such shots, however, also can depress the immune system.

Within days of taking the injection, Conine could hardly move. He walked through the clubhouse yesterday noticeably thinner but said he hopes to return to the lineup by this weekend.

The illness has limited Conine to just one game at third base while giving Ryan Minor an opportunity to emerge as camp's most welcome surprise. The Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year in 1997 and one-time heir to Ripken tumbled into limbo after a disappointing showing in Baltimore last season. Minor remains likely to start a second season at Rochester but is no longer considered overmatched at the plate.

The slow-starting Ripken is almost equidistant from last September's season-ending back surgery and his 40th birthday in August. He clears a hurdle every time he makes an extended drive to some spring outpost, as he did yesterday from Boca Raton to Fort Myers. Held to three singles so far this spring, Ripken has participated fully in all workouts while continuing an aggressive rehabilitation program.

Eighteen more practice days until the season opener. The time for questions to find answers approaches.

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