O's drop Johnson off rotation, club

Rochester ticket stuns struggling pitcher

Maduro, Mercedes rise

Thrift search finds little

Feeling misled, Johnson vows speedy return

March 29, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles conceded the painfully obvious yesterday: Jason Johnson isn't ready to open the season in an already depleted starting rotation.

In a move that visibly stunned the 26-year-old right-hander but confirmed hints dropped by manager Mike Hargrove following Johnson's abbreviated start Monday in Fort Myers, the Orioles optioned their projected No. 3 starter to Triple-A Rochester. What's left is a makeshift Opening Day rotation of Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson, Pat Rapp and second-chance Oriole Calvin Maduro.

Hargrove announced nonroster invitee Jose Mercedes will serve as the rotation's fifth spoke, but won't be added to the 25-man roster until needed April 9.

Hargrove confirmed he will go north with an 11-man staff until Mercedes' arrival. His seven-man bullpen will include Mike Timlin, Mike Trombley, Tim Worrell and left-handers Chuck McElroy, Buddy Groom, B. J. Ryan and probably veteran Al Reyes, who has revived his chances with three consecutive solid outings.

"It certainly didn't play the tune I thought it would," Hargrove said. " I don't think any of us relish the thought of sending Jason Johnson down because he's a good guy and he's got good stuff. I think before too long he'll be back, but he's got to be more effective."

Johnson initially reacted with disbelief and had to leave Hargrove's office after being told.

A team official approached Johnson at his locker and was told to keep media away. Johnson later returned to the manager's office with pitching coach Sammy Ellis.

After staring into his locker for almost an hour, Johnson collected his belongings and slipped from the clubhouse shortly after the start of yesterday's exhibition against the Minnesota Twins.

"I looked at spring training as getting ready for the season," said Johnson, implying that he considered his statistics secondary to working on pitches. "I guess they looked at it differently. I'm not going to be out of here for long. Two or three starts and I'll be back."

Johnson, who earlier this month guaranteed he would be ready by Opening Day, allowed 52 base runners in 22 innings while losing three decisions with a 6.98 ERA. Most distressing was an inability to throw strikes and his ponderous pace. On Monday, Hargrove said, "He's gone out there six times and he's 0-for-6."

Johnson finished last season 8-7 by winning five of his last seven starts. He was assured by Hargrove and Ellis last winter that he was part of the rotation.

Asked if such thinking by Johnson might have affected his approach during camp, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift replied, "If he does, he's making a terrible mistake. My own opinion is not to assume anything, especially if you pitched barely half a season [in the major leagues] last season."

Said Hargrove: "He's fairly upset. I don't blame him. I would be upset if I was him, too. I don't know that he saw this coming."

The performance by Mercedes and Maduro made the decision possible. The pair owns a combined 14 big-league wins. Neither appeared in the majors last season.

"Today is a big day for me because of how hard I worked to get back," said Mercedes, who missed most of 1998 after injuring his shoulder in a base-running mishap.

Yesterday's move represented camp's lowest point since No. 2 starter Scott Erickson had to undergo elbow surgery March 3.

"I just think he put way too much pressure on himself once Scotty went down," said Rapp.

Erickson's injury and Johnson's poor performance have created the first sense of immediacy since Thrift was named vice president of baseball operations, assuming duties formerly assigned to fired general manager Frank Wren. Thrift has so far made one trade to import major-league help -- last December's swap of Jesse Orosco for Chuck McElroy. Today marks the anniversary of Wren's trade of outfield prospect Danny Clyburn to Tampa Bay for Johnson.

Thrift says he has poked around for a pitcher but has been frustrated by an industry-wide shortage.

He said five general managers inquired about demoted left-hander Matt Riley's status almost immediately after his arrest on disorderly conduct charges was reported.

"We'd certainly consider" trading a high-ceiling prospect, said Thrift, but said Riley isn't available.

The Texas Rangers have apparently made pitcher Mark Clark available, but the Orioles weren't interested because of reports that the two-time 14-game winner has lost velocity.

The Colorado Rockies have a surplus of arms, but the Orioles have so far been unable to establish a match with general manager Dan O'Dowd.

Thrift denied that he is being pressured from ownership to acquire another starting pitcher. However, he didn't hide his desire for a move.

"I've been seeking alternatives since November and December," said Thrift, who recommended the signing of free-agent pitcher Aaron Sele to a four-year, $29 million contract before team doctors discovered an atrophied nerve in the right-hander's pitching shoulder.

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