O's should slam door on idea of Ponson or Erickson as closer

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

February 17, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles right-hander Sidney Ponson might make a great closer. He's strong, durable, talented and confident that he would be a star if he pitched regularly in the ninth inning.

Scott Erickson wouldn't look bad in the closer's role, either. He's a workhorse sinker-slider pitcher with great control and the killer instinct it takes to be on the mound when the game's on the line.

So it sounded logical when separate rumors popped up over the past few weeks projecting Ponson and Erickson to fill the pivotal role in the Orioles' bullpen. It just isn't likely to happen on either count.

"I've never even thought about Erickson," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I have thought about Sidney -- because you think about almost everything -- but I don't know how real that is. On a scale of one to 10, with one being the least likely and 10 being the most likely, I'd say it's about a one and a quarter."

It's an interesting thought. Ponson has one of the best arms in the organization and has not yet tapped his great potential as a starting pitcher. The team has enough young starters -- and the luxury of a rebuilding year to look at them -- to consider him as a bullpen stopper, but there's one big problem.

He doesn't want to do it.

Ponson said during a winter radio interview that he thought he could save 40 games if he made the switch, but he also has said repeatedly that he has no interest in leaving the Orioles' rotation.

"I don't want to be a closer, to tell the truth," Ponson said Friday. "I'm very comfortable as a starter. Being a closer might be good for my career, but I'm happy where I am.

"I think I could do it. I think I have three good pitches and could come in for one inning and get three guys out. But it isn't easy. Some of the greatest relievers in the game still struggle. Right now, starting is the only thing I'm talking about. The only thing I want to close is doors."

Speculation about Erickson is based on the notion that being the bullpen closer would be easier on his newly repaired right elbow than starting every fifth day, but the rationale is as flawed as the speculation it spawned.

Since when is it easier on a surgically repaired arm to warm up almost every night and pitch on a daily basis in a role that lends itself to trying to do too much in a tough situation?

"I don't think it's a way to protect Scott Erickson," Hargrove said.

If there was any doubt about Erickson's role, it should have been dispelled when Orioles officials began predicting early in the off-season that he would be the Opening Day starter.

Of course, veteran starting pitchers have excelled in the closer role. Dennis Eckersley parlayed the switch into a strong candidacy for the Hall of Fame. But a healthy Erickson likely would be the cornerstone of the Orioles' young rotation, which is much more important in the long term than 30 saves in a year when the Orioles probably won't contend for a playoff berth.

Expos insanity

OK, so it's time to stop giving Major League Baseball credit for planning the whole contraction debacle in advance. The disarray that is so apparent in the Montreal Expos' training camp might be proof that baseball officials were flying by the seat of their pants this past off-season.

How else do they explain the Expos still piecing together a coaching staff in the last days before spring training? There were rumors for weeks that transient owner Jeffrey Loria would take a big part of the Expos' staff with him when he bought the Florida Marlins -- and speculation that Frank Robinson would replace the departing Jeff Torborg as manager -- so why wouldn't the Expos have more of a contingency plan in place when the Marlins deal was completed on Tuesday?

The conspiracy theory: It has to look haphazard to create the impression that Major League Baseball is in a serious financial crisis.

The more plausible explanation: Baseball's off-season machinations simply snowballed to the point where it lost control of the situation.

Fraternal in Frisco?

The New York Yankees still are open to dealing Cuban pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, but general manager Brian Cashman isn't going to give the veteran right-hander away.

It appears the club will see how things shake out in spring training to figure out if it needs to move him, and to give him a chance to enhance his value with a strong exhibition performance.

The most intriguing rumor involving Hernandez has him possibly going to San Francisco, where he would be united with his brother, Livan, in the Giants' rotation.

If that happened, they would be the most notable brother combo in the same rotation since Gaylord and Jim Perry combined to win 38 games in 1974 for the Cleveland Indians.

All's not Wells

Yankees pitcher David Wells has lost 30 pounds and had a disc in his back repaired, but he wasn't ready to pitch when the club opened workouts this weekend.

Cashman said that Wells will not take the mound for another week to 10 days, but not because his lower back is bothering him.

"It's not a discomfort thing; it's more of a progression thing," Cashman said. "That was known and understood. The progression doesn't take him to the mound until late February."

Wells will have to compete with Hernandez and Sterling Hitchcock for the final two spots in the Yankees' rotation, but he doesn't seem too worried about it.

"I know that as long as I stay healthy, there's not going to be any problem with me pitching here," Wells said. "That's not something I'm really concerned about because I know my ability and what I'm capable of doing. These guys know what I'm capable of. They'll be pleased."

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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