Four O's prospects offering relief

Julio, Maduro, Brea, Paronto impress in fight for 'pen spots

March 17, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Spring training has confirmed the Orioles as a franchise in transition. For the first time in recent memory, more intrigue can be found on the field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium than in the warehouse at Camden Yards.

Investors weekend began yesterday with the Orioles' 5-4 exhibition win over the New York Mets, and those paying attention witnessed the latest act in one of camp's several dramas.

To complete what likely will be a revamped seven-man bullpen, the Orioles must choose two little-known right-handers from a cast of four. The number includes somebody with a Benitez-like power arm who somehow compiled a 2-10 record at Single-A last year; another whose actual age remains an industry mystery; a linebacker-sized, 25-year-old prospect who has shuffled roles for five seasons, and a second-look pitcher who didn't re-sign with the Orioles until two days into camp.

"Right now," says pitching coach Mark Wiley, "I couldn't rank them, because they've all done really well. They're making this a tough call."

Jorge Julio, Leslie Brea, Chad Paronto and Calvin Maduro comprise the most difficult handicapping challenge of a 4-week-old camp. Given last winter's failure to sign a veteran arm, a shoulder injury to prize prospect Luis Rivera and Alan Mills' slow recovery from September shoulder surgery, two of the four are almost certain to start the season in Baltimore. The left side of the bullpen is well-stocked with Buddy Groom, B.J. Ryan and either Chuck McElroy or John Bale. Should McElroy hang on to a starting role, Bale would likely stay. Should McElroy be returned to the bullpen, Bale may jump into the rotation. But the stories belong to the right-handed side.

Julio, 22, was acquired from the Montreal Expos for third baseman Ryan Minor three days before last Christmas. The Orioles believe they received a gift-wrapped closer-type.

Julio already is considered the organization's hardest thrower, an impression he advanced when striking out Expos catcher Randy Knorr to close Thursday's exhibition win in Jupiter. Though he has never appeared above Single-A in four seasons, Julio has entered the mix as the 12th pitcher.

Should he stick, the Venezuelan-born Julio's story would be one of the spring's most compelling. Inconsistent mechanics hurt him with the Expos and contributed to last season's 5.90 ERA and 35 walks in 79 1/3 innings. However, the Orioles saw a different pitcher in winter ball, where Julio earned six saves and posted a 2.57 ERA. Hargrove describes Julio's chance at making the club as "certainly within the realm of possibility."

Brea is the only one of the four contenders currently on the 40-man roster. He was one of four players acquired in the July 28 trade that sent shortstop Mike Bordick to the Mets.

The Orioles generously list Brea's age at 22, though Mets general manager Steve Phillips last summer confirmed that the pitcher was at least five years older than reported.

Some within the industry speculate Brea may be as old as 30, but vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift remains unfazed. "I don't care about chronological age," he said earlier this spring. "I care about arm age."

Unimpressive in nine appearances with the Orioles last season, Brea has held opponents to a .125 average in three exhibition appearances while striking out eight in 4 1/3 innings. The timing of his appearances may suggest he faces an uphill fight. While Paronto and Maduro have appeared earlier in games against major-league hitters, Brea has typically worked the ninth inning against lighter competition.

Paronto, 25, became the Orioles' eighth-round selection in the 1996 amateur draft and has shuttled between starting and relief. After moving quickly in his first three years in the system, Paronto stalled at Double-A Bowie in 1998 and 1999, compiling ERAs of 5.80 and 8.12. At 6 feet 5, 255 pounds, Paronto began to harness his power in eight starts at Bowie and 12 appearances at Triple-A Rochester after missing the first two months of last season with a biceps injury.

So far, the nonroster invitee has given the Orioles no reason to doubt him.

Yesterday's scoreless inning left him with a 1.50 ERA in five spring innings, while striking out seven against one walk. The Orioles believe his future may be at hand.

Maduro is the most familiar face. Originally signed by the Orioles in 1992, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996, reacquired as a minor-league free agent in January 1999 and made 15 appearances for the Orioles before being taken off the 40-man roster and becoming a minor-league free agent. A bone chip pressing against a ligament in his right forearm forced him to be shut down last May. Questions about his health left him with little market value this winter and he re-signed with the Orioles two days into camp.

"I feel much better this spring than last spring. I can't really tell you why, but I have more confidence in my pitches and my control," says Maduro, who labored through pain before last season's shutdown.

Hargrove describes the competition as "fairly wide-open." Wiley, hired as pitching coach last November, compares the organization's pitching depth to "most other organizations," including the Colorado Rockies, whom he left to serve under Hargrove. "In a lot of places, you'll have a separation of talent," says Wiley. "You might have some pitching at Triple-A then a gap with some good arms at lower levels. What's impressed me is the consistency of arm strength throughout the organization."

Wiley says he hopes the competition for the last two spots will come into sharper focus by next weekend. "We're going to keep sending them out there, waiting to see who steps ahead or who might step back. So far, everyone has stepped forward. That makes it tough to decide."

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