Orioles look in mirror for help

Free-agent snubs force in-house search for bullpen solutions

Bale, Julio among hopes

Thrift: `Why not give these guys ... chance' to make major move?

January 24, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

With two rocks falling from their rotation, the Orioles understood they needed to strengthen their bullpen to prevent the entire staff from crumbling. Any deficiencies among their starters could be masked with the proper support from their relievers.

Apparently, most of the construction - if not all of it - will be an inside job.

The Orioles were spurned by the free agents they pursued this winter. Jeff Nelson, who attended Catonsville High and figured to welcome a return home, chose Seattle despite the opportunity to close. Turk Wendell re-signed with the New York Mets. Tom Gordon came to terms with the Chicago Cubs.

The Orioles extended a hand and were waved off.

Club officials didn't take the rejections personally. Now, they hope each one works in their favor.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training on Feb. 14. Mike Mussina won't be there, having signed a six-year, $88.5 million contract with the New York Yankees. Scott Erickson probably won't be available until August, at the earliest, after having ligament-transplant surgery in his right elbow.

At least one opening in the rotation will be filled by a young arm with little or no major-league experience. Another spot could be taken by Chuck McElroy, who made 603 relief appearances before receiving his first two career starts in September.

More emphasis has been shifted to the bullpen, where Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, said the club most likely would look in-house for any improvements.

That includes John Bale, who was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays for minor-league catcher Jayson Werth during the winter meetings. And 21-year-old Jorge Julio, who was obtained from the Montreal Expos last month for infielder Ryan Minor.

"We've had some good acquisitions this winter, with Bale and Julio," Thrift said. "It will be a very interesting spring."

Unable to find a proven closer, the Orioles are prepared to keep Ryan Kohlmeier in that role. He converted 13 of 14 save chances after being called up from Triple-A Rochester on July 28, one day before Mike Timlin was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Kohlmeier's only link to the Orioles' winter activity was the Internet, where he kept tabs on the club's attempts to find a veteran late-inning specialist from his home in Cottonwood Falls, Kan. "I've been out of the loop," he said.

At least he's not out of a job.

"I feel like I earned a shot, but those guys are proven closers," he said. "I had a good season, but it wouldn't have hurt my feelings one bit. I'd be accepting of any role they want to put me in."

For now, Mike Trombley remains the most qualified safety valve if Kohlmeier falters. Alan Mills is expected to be ready for spring training after having arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder on Sept. 15. Left-handers Buddy Groom and B. J. Ryan still are in the mix, and the losers in the rotation battle-royal could join the unit.

Other relief possibilities besides McElroy include John Parrish, Jay Spurgeon, Jason Johnson, Josh Towers, Mark Nussbeck, Luis Rivera, Willis Roberts, Chad Paronto and Leslie Brea, who was effective in the Arizona Fall League when limited to one inning.

Reports from the winter leagues also have been encouraging. Everything that Thrift has heard about Bale and Julio in Venezuela, Rivera in Mexico and Roberts in the Dominican Republic, everything he saw during a recent week-long pitching camp in Sarasota, Fla., leaves him confident that the Orioles are taking the right approach.

"Why not give these guys, and why not give Nussbeck, and why not give Towers and some of these other pitchers a chance based on what we know about them to solidify what we need?" Thrift said. "These aren't just ordinary kids, you know."

They can't fare much worse than last year's group, which blew 24 saves and posted a 5.58 ERA that ranked 13th among the 14 American League teams. The difficulties occurred despite working the fewest number of innings.

The club's starters led the league with 999 1/3 innings and were second in complete games with 14. Mussina and Sidney Ponson each went the distance six times, and Jose Mercedes eased the burden by lasting at least six innings in 13 of his last 15 starts.

Trombley and Groom each were 4-for-11 in save chances. Ryan was 0-for-3. Nineteen of the Orioles' blown saves came in the first 31 opportunities, but the relievers converted 21 of their last 26. By then, it was too late to salvage the season.

The Orioles were 5-1 when they headed to Kansas City for the start of a six-game road trip. Four consecutive losses followed, each one pinned to the bullpen. The Royals had two walk-off home runs and a game-winning hit in sweeping the Orioles. The Minnesota Twins scored six runs in the eighth inning to complete a 10-9 victory.

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