Orioles aim outside for some strikes

March 28, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan stood in his office at the Lee County Sports Complex, frowning.

"Is this about Radke?" he asked.

Well, it wasn't about Corey Koskie.

"We'd like to keep him," Ryan said. "That's our desire. That's the only thing I'm working toward. He's as important to us as Mussina is to the Orioles."

Brad Radke is indeed the Minnesota version of Mike Mussina, which is why the Twins want to sign him long-term and the Orioles want to acquire him in a trade.

Without Scott Erickson, the Orioles' starting rotation is down to Moose and the Cabooses, a frightening thought with Opening Day less than a week away.

A trade is necessary, perhaps even urgent. But the Orioles are unlikely to land Radke, San Diego's Sterling Hitchcock or any other premium starter.

Think maybe they should have signed Aaron Sele?

Jason Johnson, projected as the No. 3 starter after Erickson's elbow surgery, is now in danger of opening the season at Triple-A Rochester.

Pat Rapp would take Johnson's spot, with Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro joining the rotation while Erickson spends most or all of April on the disabled list.

Neither Maduro nor Mercedes pitched in the majors last season. Between them, they've got 14 career wins. But manager Mike Hargrove's options are dwindling, and they were never that terrific to begin with.

Johnson is 5-12 lifetime with a 6.23 ERA if you remove his five-game winning streak in garbage time at the end of last season. Yet, with Erickson healthy, he was the No. 4 starter.

Hargrove raised the possibility of demoting Johnson yesterday after the right-hander's sixth poor outing of the spring, a dreadful four-inning stint against Minnesota.

"He's 0-for-6 right now," Hargrove said.

And panic time is approaching.

Johnson has allowed 52 base runners in 22 innings. Sidney Ponson 46 in 23 innings. Rapp, a free-agent scrap, has worked all of 14 innings entering today's start against Minnesota.

Hargrove's take on the rotation?

"It's a question," he said. "Realistically, it's a question mark, at least until we get Scott Erickson back. Potentially, we have good arms. The one concern I've had with some of our people is the lack of strikes. We've been behind a lot of hitters. I attribute that a lot to just being spring training. But it still is a concern."

This is nothing new for Hargrove, who frequently opened the season in Cleveland with Charles Nagy as his only known quantity in the starting rotation.

But the Orioles don't compete in the American League Central, where Hargrove won five straight division titles. They compete in the powerful AL East, and to add to their concerns, they've scored only 14 runs in their past seven games.

The offense? Never mind the offense.

The Orioles' No. 1 priority is acquiring another starting pitcher.

"We want a top performer rather than a fourth or fourth fringe starter," said vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "We've had more than one place we've been visiting. But with the circumstances in each place, there are different reasons why we can't do anything now."

Besides, even if a pitcher of Radke's quality becomes available, it is doubtful the Orioles could put together a prospect package good enough to outbid other potential suitors.

They probably would deal Matt Riley for Radke, who is only 27. And the Twins probably would take Riley, even though he was arrested on disorderly conduct charges Friday after an altercation with Fort Lauderdale police.

But with so many teams in search of pitching, Riley alone probably wouldn't be enough to secure a top starter, especially now that he's making headlines with his immaturity.

Two years ago, Ryan acquired four prospects from the Yankees for Chuck Knoblauch. Two of them -- pitcher Eric Milton and shortstop Cristian Guzman -- are now major contributors for the Twins.

Who is the second marquee prospect the Orioles could offer?

Third baseman Ryan Minor is batting .342 this spring, but he might no longer be viewed as a prospect at 26, and the Orioles might need him if Cal Ripken suffers a disabling injury.

First baseman Calvin Pickering might be attractive to a power-hungry team like the Twins, but he's a defensive liability who is coming off a disappointing Triple-A season and batting only .206 this spring.

The Yankees, Red Sox, A's, Mets and Reds all have expressed interest in Radke. But Ryan considers the trade rumors such a distraction, he is trying to discourage clubs from calling.

"I told everyone, don't even bother," Ryan said.

Hitchcock, who turns 29 next month, represents another dead end. The Orioles would love to acquire a left-hander for their rotation, and the Padres want to dump Hitchcock's $6 million salary. The problem is, a fit with the Orioles appears unlikely.

San Diego general manager Kevin Towers has told other GMs that his desired return for Hitchcock is a pitcher who could help his club immediately. Riley probably does not fit that description, and a major-league source said yesterday that the Padres believe that they can get a better deal elsewhere.

Thrift said he also is talking with other clubs, and even working three-way possibilities. Maybe a star will fall out of the sky, the way Sele did for Seattle GM Pat Gillick.

Otherwise, the sky may be falling.

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