O's eye early 12-man staff

Maduro, Mercedes making bids to join starting rotation

Position player may be dealt

Contract statuses might be factor in decision

March 23, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Orioles manager Mike Hargrove last night suggested that he might open the season with a 12-man pitching staff, raising the possibility that both Calvin Maduro and nonroster invitee Jose Mercedes will make the Opening Day roster.

The move also implies that a trade involving a position player could be made within the next 10 days.

"Depending on who our fifth guy is obviously, we may have to go to a 12-man staff," Hargrove said. "I prefer to have someone as an extra player for the first seven or eight days of the season, but now it hinges on whether the fifth guy is going to have options [to be returned to the minors] or not."

Such a move would run counter to Hargrove's stated preference earlier in camp for more maneuverability with his bench. Even if he takes 11 pitchers north, Hargrove said, "It's postponing the inevitable. [But] if I could finagle, I'd rather keep the extra player for six games."

Hargrove said Maduro, Mercedes and Pat Rapp remain in contention for the last two starting berths. The loser, Hargrove said, would move to the bullpen.

Hargrove said he hopes to make a decision among the three by "the first of next week" but added, "That's not set in stone." The Orioles leave Florida after Thursday's exhibition in Jupiter to complete their spring schedule in Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.

As usual, contract structure plays as much a role as performance. Rapp, signed to an incentive-laden contract with a $750,000 base salary, is out of options. The likely No. 4 starter behind Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson, Rapp has been impressive this spring despite battling a flu bug early in camp, going 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA in nine innings.

The only lingering concern is Rapp's innings load. He has faced fewer hitters than relievers Chuck McElroy, Mike Trombley, B. J. Ryan and Al Reyes.

Maduro, who carries a 2.70 ERA that does not include Tuesday's eventful 4 2/3-inning appearance in a minor-league game in Sarasota, has walked only one in four appearances. His control makes him a standout within a staff that has sometimes irritated Hargrove with its tendency to pitch behind in the count.

Signed as a minor-league free agent and placed on the 40-man roster, Maduro would have to clear irrevocable waivers before becoming eligible for reassignment. Their threadbare pitching depth above Single-A makes the Orioles unwilling to entertain such a risk.

Mercedes is on a minor-league contract and could be optioned to Triple-A. However, he had pitched 13 scoreless innings until allowing three earned runs during a four-run 10th inning Tuesday. "Based on the way he's throwing, he's really making a good case for himself," Hargrove said.

If Mercedes' performance became so convincing, the Orioles would likely start the season with a 12-man staff and might consider inserting him into one of the top four rungs of the rotation, according to a club source. The latter possibility is remote, the source said, but it would come at the expense of Rapp, who would be pushed into the bullpen.

Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis have used Mercedes tactically this spring, spotting him in relief for two and three innings at at time. By choosing not to place him within a rigid rotation, Hargrove has made it possible to inject him into the rotation where needed.

Johnson's role as No. 3 starter is safe, according to Hargrove, despite problems with mechanics throughout camp. The club believes Johnson's problems are due primarily to him placing an undue amount of pressure on himself rather than any health issue or his talent.

Johnson won five of his last seven starts in 1999 when pitching on a regular turn. After beginning last season at Triple-A Rochester and spending much of his time with the Orioles as a fifth starter, Johnson said his improved performance correlated to his changed role.

Hargrove's dynamics appear to suggest long odds for Reyes coming north. Reyes has struggled all spring with mechanics and has been challenged by nonroster invitee Tim Worrell and rookie Gabe Molina for the right-handed long relief role.

If Maduro and Mercedes both make the staff, room remains for closer Mike Timlin, left-handers Buddy Groom, McElroy and Ryan, right-hander Mike Trombley and either Worrell, Molina or Reyes.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift might also be mindful of the role an 11-man staff played in last season's disastrous April. Thrift said earlier this year he saw the "handwriting on the wall" when the club came north last April with a rotation that had performed below expectations in spring training.

Scott Erickson's post-operative absence until at least May 1 combined with sluggish camps by Johnson and Ponson (6.35 ERA, 33 base runners and five home runs in 17 innings) have created cause for concern.

A 12-pitcher configuration would carry significant consequence for the bench, possibly suggesting a trade of a reserve outfielder. Hargrove noted that the positive performance by Delino DeShields in center field could allow the extra outfielder to be either a left or right fielder, perhaps making 38-year-old Rich Amaral available.

"It comes down to whether you want two extra infielders and one extra outfielder or two extra outfielders and one infielder," Hargrove said. "I think that's the way the numbers work out."

With a four-man bench, Hargrove is a lock to retain backup catcher Greg Myers, infielder/outfielder Jeff Conine and middle infielders Jerry Hairston or Jesus Garcia. For both Garcia and Hairston to make the club, an outfielder must be moved.

"We're entering that period where [a trade] would be likely," Hargrove said. "Everybody's looking to make moves to set their rosters. We could do a number of things."

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