McElroy, W. Roberts make pitch for No. 5 spot

It's head-to-head duel for berth in rotation

March 23, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The competition between converted Orioles reliever Chuck McElroy and spring surprise Willis Roberts for the starting rotation's final berth became a two-coast affair yesterday, almost overshadowing the growing chance that manager Mike Hargrove may reconsider his staff's alignment for Opening Day.

If there was little difference between the candidates before yesterday, the margin grew even thinner by late afternoon.

While Hargrove watched McElroy hold down a St. Louis Cardinals' split squad, 4-2, at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift rumbled across Alligator Alley to take in Roberts' five shutout innings in a 6-5 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Fort Myers.

Previously an advocate of carrying a 12-man staff into the season, Hargrove said yesterday that an 11-man staff "is one possibility," while Thrift later confirmed the 11-man alignment was "under consideration." If the Orioles ultimately choose that route, a fifth starter wouldn't be designated before Opening Day.

McElroy, 33, entered spring training projected as the fourth starter, with the club uniformly insisting that placing a veteran reliever in a starting role was more than a thinly veiled attempt at increasing his trade value. Yet McElroy has done little wrong this spring, only to be passed by Jason Johnson for the No. 4 slot and placed in a head-to-head duel with Roberts, a winter-league find who has dazzled Thrift with his command and power assortment.

"I still have to go out there and control what I'm doing," said McElroy, who made 602 relief appearances before his first career start last Sept. 20.

"I'm not a front-office guy. I can only control what's going on between the lines. The rest will take care of itself. If you worry about the other stuff, you won't be able to do your job."

Said Hargrove: "I have not seen any reason for me to think it won't work. Chuck's a good athlete. He's got good stuff. Everything points to it having every chance in the world to work. My question is durability."

McElroy has not pitched 100 innings in a season since 1991 with the Chicago Cubs. Roberts has made one major-league appearance, a relief stint in 1999 with the Detroit Tigers.

Thrift promoted McElroy's move to the rotation last September and said last night, "I don't think [durability's] as much an issue as some others might. He prepared all winter. Who knows? Maybe he should have done this before. Sometimes we put people in certain categories and don't consider all alternatives. We're considering them here."

Yesterday's strong outing, which included back-to-back strikeouts of Cardinals mashers J.D. Drew and Mark McGwire, lowered McElroy's spring ERA to 3.00 and left him with six strikeouts against five walks. His numbers do not reflect two positive outings in "B" games.

"I want to take advantage of starting; that's why I worked out so hard this winter. I want to go out and do the best I can," McElroy said.

The Orioles will need their No. 5 starter for their sixth game, but they need not decide on the pitcher until three days before then. McElroy and Roberts could both make the roster and work out of the bullpen before Hargrove announces his decision around April 5.

"We don't want to make that decision and have to reverse ourselves in two weeks," Hargrove said. "Obviously, that possibility exists, but it's something we'd rather not have happen. Chuck McElroy has the stuff to pitch for us as a starter or out of the bullpen."

Hargrove said as recently as Tuesday that he was committed to opening the season with a 12-man staff because of the need for a fifth starter on April 8 in Cleveland.

Saying he had looked at it "15 ways from Sunday," Hargrove minimized the chances of breaking camp with fewer than 12 pitchers, adding that "the hoops you have to jump through doesn't make it worth the effort."

Organizational thinking apparently has shifted in the past 48 hours as Thrift buys time not only for a decision on the fifth starter but on a potential glut of position players.

Even projecting a trade or release of backup catcher Greg Myers - a prospect club sources describe as a virtual certainty - Hargrove must find a way to keep utility players Mike Kinkade and Jeff Conine and Rule 5 draftee Jay Gibbons.

With rookie backup catcher Fernando Lunar out of minor-league options and the club's pressing need for a reserve middle infielder, taking 14 position players into the season looks increasingly likely.

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