Orioles rebuilding from the mound up

Pitching: Like other teams, the O's hope stockpiling young pitchers will make the club kings of the hill again.

March 31, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - One is an Aruban flamethrower who battled arm problems most of last season, another is two years removed from a 1-10 season and the other has trouble making his pitches go faster than 85 mph. Together, they are the future of the Orioles' franchise, Part I.

Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Josh Towers form the young nucleus of the Orioles' starting pitching rotation, and the organization is counting on each of them to make big improvements this season.

Behind that trio, the Orioles have another wave of young pitchers toiling at Triple-A and Double-A, with names like Rick Bauer, Sean Douglass and Erik Bedard. That wave is the future of the franchise, Part II.

"We're not lying when we say the good young arms are there," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "Will they develop the way you hope they will and make it to the big leagues and help you win? I don't know. Not all of them, probably. But hopefully enough of them that it will make a big difference."

The Orioles have seen this strategy make a difference for other teams. They've seen the Oakland Athletics build a perennial contender around a trio of fabulous young starters - all under age 27.

They've seen the Houston Astros reach the playoffs behind a stable of young arms. They've seen the waves coming in for Cleveland, Minnesota and Florida.

"Every team's trying to do it," said Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "Right now, we're the lucky ones."

Will the Orioles be lucky, too? Only time will tell.

Success stories

Even before contraction started looming, the Twins were in a dubious state. After winning the World Series in 1987 and 1991, the franchise went into a tailspin that included a string of eight consecutive losing seasons.

The fans stopped coming en masse, but Twins general manager Terry Ryan and former manager Tom Kelly gradually put a plan in place to build internally within the confines of a cheap budget.

In February 1998, they traded their most marketable player, Chuck Knoblauch, to the New York Yankees for a package that included a Double-A pitcher named Eric Milton.

The previous October, the Twins had added Single-A pitcher Joe Mays as the player to be named in a trade with the Seattle Mariners for Roberto Kelly.

Minnesota kept stockpiling young arms, and, a year ago, it started reaping the rewards. The Twins became the darlings of baseball, contending for a playoff spot until late in the season.

Milton and Mays, both 26, made the All-Star team.

Gardenhire replaced Kelly this off-season and inherited a pitching staff that includes two other former All-Stars: Brad Radke, 29, and Rick Reed, 36.

The Twins also have a plethora of young pitchers knocking on the door. Kyle Lohse, 23, will be their No. 5 starter. Matt Kinney, Brad Thomas and Adam Johnson - three more pitchers under age 26 - aren't far behind.

Gardenhire said building this foundation took patience.

"We got beat around for a while," Gardenhire said. "But for one thing, we had a manager [Kelly] who's very good at handling the pitching staff, and he was able to use kid gloves.

"Sometimes our pitchers didn't like the way they were taken out of ballgames. But he did it all with a purpose, so that they didn't get hurt and didn't get beat up too badly. He developed them, and now you're getting to see some good results."

The Twins can see similar signs of success from this strategy right in their same division. The Cleveland Indians boast a starting rotation that features Bartolo Colon, 28, C.C. Sabathia, 21, Danys Baez, 24, and Ryan Drese, 25.

Cleveland had long been a franchise built around power hitting, not power pitching. But once the Indians got their hands on this group, they were willing to try it.

"You have to be careful before you make a statement about building around pitching," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "Committing to young pitchers is one thing, but it takes a special kind of guys. You look at the guys we have, and all of them are tough, competitive and confident. And they all have exceptional stuff."

The same can be said for the three youngsters in the Astros' rotation: Wade Miller, 25, Roy Oswalt, 24, and Carlos Hernandez, 21.

Miller and Oswalt combined to win 30 games last season, and left-hander Hernandez won the battle for the No. 5 spot this spring against Tim Redding, 24.

"We seem to be in a wave of talented young pitching," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "I don't really have a theory on why. All I know is, in the '90s, there seemed to be a growing dearth of talent, especially in power arms. We put a focus on pitching and looking for power arms, and we put a sound scouting and player development program in place."

The future, Part I

Patience, commitment and good fortune. Those were all tenets of the aforementioned success stories. The Orioles will need all three to make their strategy work, and one pitcher who has tried their patience is Ponson.

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