Names may change faster than weather

Inside the Orioles

Early experimentation with pitchers promises to have an extended life

Baseball

April 22, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Are the Orioles in a transitional or a developmental mode? Or both? The flurry of transactions and role shifts that have occurred during the season's first 20 days will likely typify a season devoted to discovery.

Already this season, the Orioles have opted for an 11-man pitching staff after manager Mike Hargrove stated his preference for a 12-man alignment early in spring training.

There have been suggestions that Willis Roberts may receive an opportunity to unseat Ryan Kohlmeier as closer. The team outrighted Calvin Maduro after the Aruban made the club with a perfect spring training, promoted left-hander John Bale, sent Sidney Ponson to the disabled list with elbow tendinitis and allowed Chad Paronto to make his major-league debut, then come back for more the next afternoon.

The Orioles needed only three appearances in less than three weeks by Chuck McElroy to concede his attempted conversion from long relief to the starting rotation a failure. Meanwhile, Roberts started, rather than closed, on Friday against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

This is the kind of season Baltimore should expect. Pitchers will come and go with the tides, some of them needing a 30-minute drive from Bowie to make the leap to the major leagues.

The Orioles employed 22 pitchers last season; 11 of them started. By the end of this month, at least 13 pitchers will have worked for Hargrove and seven started. The numbers are almost certain to eventually exceed last season's.

Josh Towers, Jay Spurgeon, Jorge Julio, Sean Douglass and John Parrish are considered safe bets to appear at some point. Alan Mills continues to rehab his shoulder from last summer's arthroscopic surgery and will likely become the staff's 12th arm.

Beau Hale, last year's No. 1 draft pick from Texas, is expected to advance quickly and may debut before his 23rd birthday.

"There's a belief that there's a lot of opportunity," says Paronto, one of the last two pitchers cut during spring training. "It's the nature of the job. Arms break down. You know there's going to be opportunity. You just have to make the most of it."

But before another turnstile is placed outside the Orioles' clubhouse, Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley insist that minimum standards be used instead of conducting open auditions.

"We're not going to rush guys up here just because they have some success at [Single-] A and Double-A," Hargrove says. "There are certain things they have to demonstrate beyond numbers, such as the ability to consistently locate the fastball. That's basic."

Wiley says: "If you can't locate your fastball, nothing else really matters. Off-speed stuff complements a fastball. It's very hard to start if you can't locate your fastball, because eventually you'll become overexposed. That's the first thing you look for."

Precise command of a primary off-speed pitch is vital. Possession of several off-speed pitches is preferable. For a reliever, the ability to work effectively on consecutive days bears watching. Regardless of role, handling adversity is a necessity, especially within a roster that represents a work in progress.

"I like to see improvement, not only in games but in work habits, between starts," says Wiley, who was allowed to establish an organizational pitching philosophy upon his arrival last November.

"You look for a pitcher's ability to take those routines into a game. You look at his ability to adjust within a game - by switching pitches or patterns."

The abbreviated appearance of McElroy in the rotation is illustrative of the triple-tiered machinations involved in this aspect of the organizational plan.

Paronto made 16 pitches in two shutout innings Wednesday night, then was brought back to pitch 1 1/3 more Thursday. The second time was less successful, but no less revealing.

Reading an organization that releases its intentions in bits and pieces is just as important as watching the arms that have so much bearing on the club's future.

McElroy relished the possibility of starting. He constructed a mound in the backyard of his Texas home, throwing to relatives and adopting a new workout regimen. A pending free agent, he even pondered what a successful transition might mean to his market value.

The Orioles viewed the McElroy experiment more pragmatically. Should he succeed, McElroy would, indeed, enhance his value - for a midseason trade to a team needing left-handed pitching.

If the move failed - as Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift apparently concluded after Thursday's loss - then initially employing McElroy as fifth starter at least allowed the organization's younger arms another month to prepare.

The Orioles won't use their No. 5 starter again until Saturday - 30 days since the club headed north from Fort Lauderdale.

Just as shortstop Mike Bordick is the team's only position player to open this season at the same station as last, next year's pitching staff could look radically different.

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