Heavy dose of unknown helps O's firm up roster

In field and on mound, inexperience sets up season of curiosity

April 01, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The Orioles made their season-opening roster final yesterday and acknowledged that they have no idea what lies in store. They also insist they prefer it that way.

Administering the final touches to a team they point to as younger, less costly and more flexible than its underachieving predecessor, the Orioles yesterday optioned left-handed pitcher John Bale and outfielder Eugene Kingsale to Triple-A Rochester. What remains is a less-grizzled bunch, including 11 players too inexperienced to have ever tasted salary arbitration, nine who've arrived in Baltimore since last July 27 and four rookies.

"I'd rather be in the situation we're in right now than the situation we were in last year," said manager Mike Hargrove.

The Orioles will open with 10 players who have never played an uninterrupted major-league season and three starting pitchers with 25 or fewer major-league wins in that role.

A year ago, the Orioles knew what they had. This time, the anticipation of the unknown outweighs concerns about immediate contention.

"They're going to learn and we're going to learn," said vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift. "This is a teaching and learning process. But I'd rather go into the battle with talented people than not. You know you're going to have peaks and valleys. That's part of the process. We have talent. ... There's no doubt in my mind this is a competitive team."

Thrift and Hargrove decided to keep right-handed reliever Calvin Maduro over the left-hander Bale. More precisely, Maduro decided for them.

Signed to a minor-league contract two days into camp, Maduro made 10 scoreless appearances while holding opposing hitters to 7-for-49 production.

"Calvin went out there and took all the arguments and buried them," Hargrove said.

Maduro joins a seven-man Opening Day bullpen that features three left-handers. But one of them, Chuck McElroy, also was anointed by Hargrove yesterday as fifth starter. McElroy will make his first start April 8 in Cleveland. It will also be only the third of a 13-year career. How long the ride lasts is uncertain, but for now the Orioles consider it a successful experiment.

"I think we're looking at giving Mac four, maybe five starts before we would look at making a change," said Hargrove. "If his first start is not good, we're not going to start the process of saying, `Oh, geez, we have to look at this.' We've invested too much time in this process, and he has also, to start waffling after one or two starts."

McElroy will follow Pat Hentgen, Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Jose Mercedes. The 24-year-old Ponson's 29 major-league wins as a starter rank second on the staff.

The Orioles also retained off-season find Willis Roberts, a 25-year-old itinerant who received only one major-league appearance in eight seasons with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies.

Scouted and signed during the Dominican Winter League, Roberts nearly strong-armed his way into the rotation with a 2.25 ERA and team-high 23 strikeouts in 20 innings. Instead, he will serve as right-handed relief and a safety net for McElroy.

"I signed here because they told me they would give me an opportunity," Roberts said shortly before Hargrove officially notified him of his status. "I worked hard for this. It means very much."

Just as several players will be used interchangeably in left field, right field and as designated hitter, Hargrove said his bullpen will need to be "mentally agile" in order to handle shifting duties.

Despite the talk about roster and mental dexterity, contract inflexibility influenced several of yesterday's decisions.

First baseman Jay Gibbons, 24, makes the club despite never having received an at-bat above Double-A. Because the Orioles selected him from the Toronto Blue Jays in last December's Rule 5 draft, Gibbons had to remain with the major-league team or be offered back to the Blue Jays for $25,000.

The Orioles tried a third way by attempting to trade another player to Toronto for Gibbons, thus freeing them to option the left-handed hitter. The Blue Jays refused, knowing they retain the right to reclaim Gibbons should his new club attempt to reassign him during the season.

"Because of my situation, I knew it was my spot to lose," said Gibbons, who did nothing to hurt himself by batting .358 with four home runs and 11 RBIs this spring.

To keep Gibbons, the Orioles had to option Kingsale, who led the club with a .400 average.

"It came down to the fact that Jay Gibbons had a good spring, and with the Rule 5, we didn't want to send him back," said Hargrove.

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