Erickson is ready to begin yet again

Chances of pitcher, 35, making Orioles' rotation thought somewhat remote

`Goal is to be a starting pitcher'

Recovery from bad year, serious offseason injury has toned down trade talk

February 15, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles had chances to trade Scott Erickson last year. Looking back - and it's really never fair looking back - they probably wish they had done so, even if it meant eating a sizable portion of his salary.

Erickson defied the skeptics last spring when he came back from Tommy John surgery and became the Orioles' Opening Day starter. At the beginning of May, he was 3-2 with a 3.45 ERA.

The St. Louis Cardinals were interested. They wanted the Orioles to take on part of Erickson's 2003 salary. He's making $5.6 million this year and has another $1 million deferred.

Erickson, who turned 35 this month, has the right to refuse any trade as a player with 10 years in the big leagues and five with the same team, but baseball sources said it never reached that stage.

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' former vice president of baseball operations, held onto Erickson through the trade deadline, thinking he would have a big second half and a solid 2003. At the time, there was little about Erickson's performance to make the Orioles believe otherwise.

Seven months later, a lot has changed.

The Orioles' pitchers and catchers had their first official workout yesterday, and Erickson showed up as somewhat of a long shot to make the team's starting rotation.

After May 3, Erickson went 2-10 with a 6.41 ERA.

In July, he started feeling tightness in his right shoulder, but he kept it to himself. By the end of August, he was so ineffective, the Orioles shut down his season.

"He's so big and strong and has a relatively high pain threshold," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said, "and I think this was bothering him a long time before he let on."

In November, Erickson played a charity softball game with Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson in Aruba. The next day, Erickson felt a twinge of pain in his shoulder, and eventually he visited a specialist, Dr. James Andrews, in Los Angeles.

Tests showed Erickson had a partially torn labrum - the cartilage area around the shoulder socket.

"The softball game had nothing to do with [the injury]," Erickson said. "It actually did me a favor by letting me know that I needed to do something to fix my shoulder. It was a blessing in disguise."

Doctors told Erickson he could undergo surgery or rehabilitate the injury by strengthening the muscles around the labrum. Either way, Erickson said, he'd have a 50-50 chance of making a full recovery.

"Eventually I'll probably do something," Erickson said about having surgery. "But they said you could rehab it and develop everything around there and mask whatever problem I have. I chose that route. They thought that was the best way to go, and it feels great."

When the Orioles announced the injury, just before the baseball winter meetings in December, it stifled more Erickson trade talk. At the time, the New York Mets were interested, but now teams probably will wait to see how Erickson looks this spring.

Yesterday, Erickson went through the same workout as the rest of the Orioles' pitchers. He did fielding drills and spent about eight minutes throwing fastballs off a practice mound.

Hargrove said Erickson has no restrictions. Erickson had been telling the team's medical staff he'd be fine, and on his first day in camp, he went about proving it.

"He showed no signs of weakness or injury," Hargrove said. "Everything was clean, and you would not have known that [the torn labrum] had been diagnosed. He didn't throw like he was broken at all."

Trade talks are quiet right now, as teams assess their own players coming into camp, but the Orioles will keep looking to move pitching for offense. Currently, they have seven experienced starters vying for five spots. If all seven prove healthy, and two aren't traded, someone might have to go to the bullpen.

"I'm not going to look at that option until I have to," Erickson said. "My goal is to be a starting pitcher, hopefully one of the top three. If I don't make that, if I'm not good enough to do that, then I'll consider secondary choices. At this time in my career, I'm still good enough to be a starting pitcher."

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