O's open to filling role of closer

Roberts, Julio, Foster all likely to get looks

February 24, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - While it's not always clear where the Orioles are leaning in their choice of a closer, be assured it's in the general direction of youth.

It's not as if their in-house compass can spin away from it.

Would they prefer having the last three outs placed in a veteran's hand? Absolutely. Manager Mike Hargrove said the team continues to explore "every opportunity."

Are they prepared to push forward with the collection of neophytes in camp? Absolutely. Hargrove said he won't lose any sleep if a more experienced late-inning specialist such as the St. Louis Cardinals' Dave Veres doesn't show up on his doorstep.

"Having a good veteran closer would make it easier on our young arms," Hargrove said, "but I'm not saying it's essential. It would be advantageous, but I don't think it's the be-all and end-all, either."

What other philosophy can he adopt? If the Orioles take a young committee approach, they're likely to sort through a pile that includes Willis Roberts, Jorge Julio and Kris Foster. All three made their major-league debuts in 2001, with only Roberts going from start to finish.

Pitching coach Mark Wiley warns of the tendency of young closers to "feel like they must do too much," leaving balls in the middle of the plate even when ahead in the count.

"It actually backfires on them. They overthrow or get hurt when they really have an advantage," he said "That's what we're trying to identify, people who can stay within themselves on a day-to-day basis, handle defeat, come back the next day and show some consistency in their approach. They all possess the kind of stuff that, if you can consistently get it in good areas in the plate, any of them can close."

Left-hander Buddy Groom led the club with 11 saves, but he's too valuable in a set-up role, with his 70-plus appearances a season etched in stone, to always be held back for the ninth. He's never been a full-time closer, and has little desire to begin experimenting.

"I think they would prefer to leave me in a set-up role and I'd prefer to do that," he said during the first week of spring training. "That's where I'm best suited to help the team."

When Roberts, 26, first arrived in Fort Lauderdale this year with the other pitchers and catchers, he immediately looked like the early favorite. He was the last pitcher to audition for the part in 2001, leaving the rotation to convert five of his first six save opportunities in August. With the Orioles posting the worst second-half record in baseball, Roberts didn't get another chance until Sept. 21.

Some audition. The club now must call him back for a second reading.

"It doesn't matter where they use me in a game. I'm just ready to pitch," he said.

"He's in that mix," Hargrove said. "I don't know if there's one guy we'll name as closer going into the season. We'll see. If things fall into place, he could be the closer, but right now he's a real good set-up man."

So what does that make Julio? Perhaps the darkhorse in a race of foals.

He's the youngest at 22, and so raw his locker should be a walk-in freezer. Two years ago, he was starting games for the Montreal Expos' Single-A affiliate in Jupiter, Fla. Intrigued by a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, the Orioles traded Ryan Minor for him on Dec. 22, 2000 - a transaction that got noticed in Baltimore only because of Minor's one-time designation as top prospect and eventual replacement for Cal Ripken.

Julio had three stints with the Orioles last season, making an improbable jump to the majors and going 1-1 with a 3.80 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings. The 10 losses and 5.90 ERA in Jupiter were forgotten.

"I think Jorge Julio has the stuff to be a closer," Hargrove said. "Is it this year? It may be. And it may be that he takes over that spot and goes with it for the next 15 years. But I want to be real careful in making that decision."

Foster, 27, came to the Orioles in July with catcher Geronimo Gil for reliever Mike Trombley. It took nine seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization for him to rise above Double-A, the promotion arriving two months before the trade. Another power arm, Foster appeared in seven games with the Orioles and gave them 2 1/3 perfect innings in his final outing.

"I was pretty much told that Willis was getting an opportunity to be the closer and if it didn't work out for one reason or another, I'd get a look, but to mainly come here and focus on making the team and being a set-up guy," said Foster, who was 6-for-6 in save chances at Triple-A Rochester.

"Closing is the job I want to compete for. If I don't get it today, I want to be able to earn it down the road. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity and proving to them I can do it, and when they feel comfortable with me doing it. I can do it right now. If the need arises, I can definitely step in and do it."

Stepping in isn't the issue. The challenge comes in not falling, in not having a bullpen full of children with skinned knees.

"We're going to have to have somebody back there, and hopefully, somebody will take charge of it to where we can have some confidence and some expectation of what will happen when he goes out there," Wiley said.

"We're kind of taking what we're dealt."

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