O's have plenty of problems, but pitching remains biggest

April 02, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles enter the 2000 season with an abundance of concerns, despite their typical, high payroll. Are they too old? Too slow? Too similar to last year's 78-84 team? Will injuries cause problems? Can new manager Mike Hargrove offset the club's shortcomings elsewhere?

Valid questions, all. But none are as important, in the end, as another, overriding concern that dwarfs all others: Is there enough pitching?

At the risk of over-simplifying a complicated equation, if the Orioles pitch well this season, they'll probably finish over .500 for the first time since 1997, no matter how slow they are, how often injuries affect the lineup or how much difference Hargrove makes.

But if they don't pitch that well, on top of their other concerns, look out below. As ugly as last season was, this season could be worse.

Sure, with Scott Erickson out until May, Cal Ripken and Will Clark coming back from surgery and Brady Anderson, B. J. Surhoff and Jeff Conine already battling injuries, the other concerns are real. There's no use even paying attention to predictions for 2000 based on "everyone staying healthy." Ain't gonna happen.

But at what price? A less productive offense? Doubtful. The Orioles have Albert Belle batting cleanup, guaranteed to deliver big numbers no matter how much controversy he spawns. They also have an array of hitters coming off strong seasons, and they play in a ballpark friendly to hitters. And given the poor quality of pitching in the major leagues, let's face it, every team is going to hit fairly well.

The Orioles finished sixth in the league in batting last season, setting a club record with a .279 team average, and one way or another, they're probably going to hit enough to win this season, no matter who gets hurt.

They're also probably going to catch and throw fairly well, regardless of who is in the field. Their age was more noticeable in that area than anywhere else last season, with a lack of range making a difference in numerous games. But again, given the presence of shortstop Mike Bordick, catcher Charles Johnson and the club's recent history of solid glove work, the defense could only fall so far. And maybe not at all.

It's the pitching, stupid. That's where the variables are by far the greatest. That's where the arc of the Orioles' season is going to be determined.

That's where the real concerns abound, at almost every spot on the staff.

The exception is ace Mike Mussina, an All-Star in the prime of his career, coming off a strong 1999 with his contract up after this season. The only question about him is whether this is the season when he finally wins 20 games. He'll come close, no doubt.

After that, well, where aren't there questions?

Even though Erickson's recovery from elbow surgery is running ahead of schedule, when will he be back to his old, innings-chewing self? He slumped early last season because of a lack of work in spring training, he said, and now he hasn't had any work at all in spring training. Penciling in his customary 15 wins could be a stretch.

After that comes Sidney Ponson, 23, who won 12 games last year but faded at the end of the season. His potential is enormous, but the Orioles need more from him this season if they're going to make any noise, and watching him struggle in spring training, it's possible he's just not ready to do big things just yet.

The same obviously goes for Jason Johnson, now starting the season at Triple-A after being penciled in as the No. 3 starter when Erickson went down. He has quality stuff, but he was frightful in the spring and, let's face it, there's no telling when or if he'll produce.

The remaining starts will go to Pat Rapp, Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro. Only Rapp was in the majors last season. Gulp. Rapp is an upgrade as a No. 5 starter, but No. 3 is a stretch. And while the hunger Mercedes and Maduro will bring is a pleasant change, who knows if they can get major-leaguers out consistently?

The margin for error is shockingly thin, almost to the point of desperation.

The bullpen is also dubious, even though the front office has concentrated on stabilizing it, bringing in veterans Mike Trombley, Chuck McElroy and Buddy Groom to support closer Mike Timlin.

The good news is Timlin seems sounder, and the new 'pen can't do any worse than the old one, which blew 25 saves in 1999. The bad news is Trombley (4.33 ERA last season), McElroy (5.50) and Groom (5.09) are hardly sure things, and Timlin still hasn't closed in pennant-race conditions.

How they hold up and how Ponson and the other starters fare is where the course of the Orioles' season will be determined. Sure, it'll be a problem if Anderson's bizarre leg ailment limits him, or if Ripken's back flares up, or if any of the other potential red flags get waved.

But the pitching is the real X-factor this season, the place where the Orioles could write a surprising feel-good story -- or another expensive horror tale.

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