Johnson wants to close door on bullpen

With scouts watching, pitcher makes statement for No. 4 spot in rotation

Orioles notebook

March 17, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. - If the Orioles were hoping to light a fire beneath Jason Johnson this spring, it seems to be working.

They added veteran starters to the roster, they told him his job was up for grabs, and they made no secret they would move him to the bullpen and even the minor leagues if they had to.

Johnson, who is 16-36 during the past three seasons, has taken notice.

Yesterday, he made a strong statement on the mound against the Florida Marlins and then made another in the clubhouse after he finished pitching.

He became the first Orioles starter to pitch six innings this spring, holding the Marlins to two runs on seven hits, and then explained how he viewed his competition with Pat Hentgen and Rick Helling for the final two spots in the starting rotation.

"I don't plan on being the fifth starter; I plan on being the fourth starter," Johnson said. "That's what I'm shooting for right now. I don't want to have anything to do with the bullpen. I've had that before, and I wasn't very good there, so I try to stay out of that."

Johnson lowered his spring ERA to 3.27 before perhaps the largest contingent of scouts to watch an Orioles game this spring. Several scouts base themselves in nearby West Palm Beach, and many flock to Jupiter to do their basic coverage, but teams know Johnson could probably be had for the right price.

He's making $2.9 million this season, and most teams say the Orioles would have to swallow some of that contract before they could move him. But with Hentgen sitting on an 8.36 ERA and Helling at 4.26, Johnson has started to separate himself.

"There's always a possibility somebody gets traded," Johnson said. "Look at Chris Richard; he got traded [to Colorado] right off the bat. It can happen anytime. I try not to worry about it. If somebody wants me, that's good for me because they want me to go somewhere and pitch for them. That's great.

"Don't get me wrong," Johnson added, "I'd love to stay in Baltimore, but that's not up to me."

Johnson, 29, does have a minor-league option remaining, so the Orioles could send him to Triple-A Ottawa, but team officials say the chances of that happening are slim. They could also move Hentgen, Helling or Johnson into a long-relief role.

"I think there are ways we can keep all of them, obviously," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "And I'm sure we'll discuss those."

Scouting Loewen

Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie went to the Florida panhandle to watch first-round draft pick Adam Loewen on Saturday, but Chipola Junior College's game was rained out. Beattie still got to see Loewen pitch five innings, however, in an intra-squad game.

The Orioles will have a one-week window to try to sign Loewen, ending May 27, and if they don't reach a deal, Loewen would re-enter the draft. The Orioles plan to have someone scout him every time he takes the mound, and Beattie said he or vice president Mike Flanagan will try to see him again on one of the team's two trips to Tampa Bay in April.

Around the horn

The Orioles were expecting Scott Erickson to miss the entire season, and those thoughts were confirmed when he underwent shoulder surgery March 7.

Erickson not only had a 50 percent tear of his right labrum, but he also had fraying in the rotator cuff and a deteriorating clavicle bone. He will be a free agent after the season. ... Rodrigo Lopez, Rick Bauer and Willis Roberts pitched yesterday in a minor-league intra-squad game in Sarasota. Lopez remains on schedule to start Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians.

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