O's eyeing closer from close up

Thrift looking around, but says trading for pitcher is `very slim'

Alfonseca, Veres scouted

Largely untested arms Roberts, Julio likely to fill roll with vet Groom

March 14, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There have been talks with the Florida Marlins about Antonio Alfonseca, and talks with the St. Louis Cardinals about Dave Veres, but Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday chances are "very slim" his club will trade for a closer before spring training ends.

The Orioles are prepared to enter the season using a closer-by-committee approach, with a group that will likely include unproven youngsters Willis Roberts and Jorge Julio, along with veteran left-hander Buddy Groom.

"To be very realistic, I think the chances are very slim of us trading for a closer prior to the end of spring training," Thrift said. "For two reasons. Number one is the economics of what one might cost. And the second is what do you have to give up?

"We've got too many talented people here to be short-sighted."

The Orioles have wrestled with this issue for months. On one hand, they want to give their young relievers a chance to handle the frenzy of a late-inning lead. On the other hand, they know what blown saves can do to a team's confidence.

For a franchise trying to build around its young starting pitchers -- especially Jason Johnson and Sidney Ponson -- apparent wins that turn into sudden losses can be especially painful.

"You run that risk no matter who you've got," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "We'll do everything we can to keep that from happening. But if everybody does their jobs, we'll be OK."

"Sure," Hargrove added, "it is a concern, yeah."

The Orioles have been scouting both Veres and Alfonseca. Veres, who will make $4.5 million this season, has 75 saves over the past three seasons, but he became expendable once the Cardinals signed free-agent closer Jason Isringhausen.

Alfonseca led the National League in saves two years ago with 45, but he is coming off back surgery and will make $3.55 million this season. The Orioles also have no plans to part with left-handed reliever B.J. Ryan, one of the Marlins' primary targets.

"It depends on how much [the trade costs]," Thrift said, not speaking specifically about any player. "If the price is right, and the situation's right, we'll do it."

More likely, at least to start the season, Hargrove will be picking and choosing his closer as the Orioles go.

Asked about using the closer-by-committee approach, Hargrove said, "I don't have much choice."

"We'd all like to have a closer because it makes everybody's job easier and more productive," Hargrove said. "But I think with the people we have available, I think we can find somebody every night to do the job."

Roberts, 26, got a taste for closing last season, converting five of six save opportunities during August. But the Orioles were en route to a 63-98 finish and didn't provide him with another save opportunity until Sept. 21.

After entering spring training as the leading candidate to secure the job, Roberts has done nothing to hurt himself with five scoreless appearances.

His competition has been pretty good as well.

Julio, 23, has allowed one run in five appearances. The Orioles acquired Julio from the Montreal Expos for Ryan Minor in December 2000, and they think Julio has the potential to become the best closer of the bunch.

The Orioles led the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-5, in the ninth inning yesterday, and Julio retired the side for his second save of the spring.

"Is Jorge going to be our closer this year?" Hargrove said. "I don't know. But certainly the more situations we can get him where the game's on the line ... and he's successful, the better pitcher he's going to become.

"He has great stuff. He just needs confidence and he needs to experience success."

Groom, 36, experienced plenty of it last season. He entered with 12 career saves and almost doubled that total. The Orioles gave him a two-year, $5.75 million contract, but their hope is to find someone else to close games and let Groom handle the tough left-handed hitters in a setup role.

Another pitcher in the mix is Kris Foster. His fastball reaches 100 mph, but the Orioles will likely make him their closer at Triple-A Rochester, allowing him to work on his command under less stressful circumstances.

The Orioles are exercising patience, even though Opening Day is April 1."Every day we give our players a chance, they grow one more day," Thrift said. "I think we have to just let time be our ally, and be prepared to do what's right."

Contenders for closer

The four relievers competing for the Orioles' job as closer:

Player Age IP H BB SO W-L S ERA

Willis Roberts 26 133.1 145 55 95 9-10 6 4.99

Skinny: The internal favorite for the job coming into camp, Roberts has made five scoreless appearances this spring. He got a taste for closing late last season, but the Orioles didn't give him many opportunities

Jorge Julio 23 21.1 25 9 22 1-1 0 3.80

Skinny: The Orioles traded Ryan Minor to get him, and of all their internal candidates, they feel like he has the highest ceiling. Julio went 2-10 at Single-A Jupiter just two years ago, but he has also been impressive during camp.

Buddy Groom 36 533.2 605 206 360 22-25 23 4.91

Skinny: A left-hander, Groom led the club with 11 saves last season, but the Orioles know they would be better off keeping him in a set-up role. If the Orioles don't get a closer through a trade, and the kids can't get it done, Groom may get more opportunities.

Kris Foster 27 10.0 9 8 8 0-0 0 2.70

Skinny: The Orioles will probably make him their closer at Triple-A Rochester to start the season. He has a fastball that reaches 100 mph, but he is still having trouble with his location.

- Joe Christensen

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