Orioles draw nearer to erasing questions

Team more hopeful than it was a year ago

March 18, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles passed the midpoint of their exhibition schedule yesterday, hopeful enough that team members speak of an "ambush" awaiting anyone buying into the avalanche of doomsday projections and interesting enough to hold majority owner Peter Angelos' attention during an afternoon cloudburst.

Angelos sat bareheaded through yesterday's 4-3, split-squad loss to the St. Louis Cardinals despite a late-inning rain that chased away most fans. This spring's experiment is that riveting.

Two weeks ago, manager Mike Hargrove insisted during the denouement to Albert Belle's spring stay that "there are a lot of good things going on if people want to look." Since Belle's injury-related departure, the Orioles have offered a fresher, more aggressive look.

An 11-6 exhibition record, spirited competition for at least six roster spots and a decidedly more aggressive offense have cleared enough room for a sense of expectation.

"Everybody operates on the premise that you hope for the best and prepare for the worst," Hargrove said before yesterday's exhibition.

Compared to a year ago, there is far more hope for discovery and less need to batten down for the worst.

"People are throwing the ball well," said Chuck McElroy, the career left-handed reliever who is attempting to earn a berth as the No. 5 starter. "I think we're going to surprise people."

Two weeks from its April Fool's workout at Camden Yards, the Orioles have been impressed by hitters Mike Kinkade, Jay Gibbons and Chris Richard, none of whom was with the club before last July 28. Hargrove has ruminated over the possibility of Brian Roberts jumping from Single-A to the team's Opening Day roster as a utility player. Brady Anderson no longer resembles last year's hurt player.

"The biggest thing I'm waiting for is everybody to get healthy. I'm waiting for [first baseman David] Segui to get healthy; I'm waiting for Cal [Ripken] to get healthy. I think that will solidify the picture a lot when they do."

Segui's pulled right hamstring and Ripken's fractured rib have confined the duo to 16 exhibition at-bats, all belonging to Segui. Ripken hopes to face live batting practice tomorrow, and Hargrove is rooting for Segui's return by midweek. However, if the truism holds that spring training is about preparing a pitching staff, the club has reason to expect improvement over its recent history.

The Orioles' newfangled rotation finds itself in a superior position this spring compared to last. At this time last March, Scott Erickson had undergone arthroscopic elbow surgery during which ligament damage was confirmed. Projected third starter Jason Johnson was so lost mechanically that Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis optioned him to minor-league camp. Neither pitcher recovered from their spring problems, finishing last season a combined 6-18 with 200 1/3 innings.

Johnson has been as impressive this camp as he was lost last year. Incumbent 14-game winner Jose Mercedes has yet to walk a hitter in four starts.

Sidney Ponson has suggested his endless tease of the club may be over as he has flashed an expanded off-speed assortment while limiting opposing hitters to a .171 average.

The trends conflict with those that bled into the past two seasons, when 1999 saw an ill-prepared rotation fold in April and the 2000 season had a potential breakout sabotaged by its bullpen.

The four-man starting foundation -- Pat Hentgen, Ponson, Mercedes and Johnson -- enter today's game a combined 5-2 with a 3.55 ERA. Johnson has surrendered four earned runs in four starts, with three earned runs coming in one inning.

"It's a little more settled. There are still questions that need to be answered, but there are good questions that are being answered," said Hargrove. "People are stepping up and providing answers. Last year that wasn't the case. Last year we were expecting Jason Johnson to break camp with us and he never gave us a reason to do that. He gave us every reason not to.

"The difference in the perception of the two camps one year apart is apparent."

Visitors to the Orioles' clubhouse last spring were greeted by a subdued atmosphere that belied the expectations engendered by Hargrove's arrival as manager. The past four weeks have offered a contrast with players believing an organizational pitch that jobs are to be had by younger talent.

"Guys recognize that they're receiving a shot," said second baseman Jerry Hairston.

Decisions await on a backup catcher, a reserve middle infielder, the fifth starting pitcher, two right-handed relievers and whether corner infielders Kinkade, Gibbons and veteran Jeff Conine can all make the team. McElroy could conceivably be traded.

If there has been a disappointment, it has been in the faltering performances of several high-ceiling prospects who might have challenged for starting berths.

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