O's Beattie just happy to have Julio wearing orange, black uniform

While he was in Montreal, executive had tough time living with trade of pitcher

March 21, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. - The trade doesn't torment Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie as much anymore.

Jorge Julio for Ryan Minor.

That one was tough to live with when Beattie was still with the Montreal Expos.

Julio has blossomed from a struggling Single-A pitcher into one of the finest young closers in baseball. Minor, once seen as Cal Ripken's heir apparent in Baltimore, spent last season playing in the independent leagues.

"I got plenty of grief from the guys for that one," Beattie said yesterday. "The only way I could get [Julio] back was to trade myself."

Beattie, who came to the Orioles in December, was the Expos' general manager three years earlier, when the two teams made the deal. Montreal needed a third baseman, and an Expos scout had turned in a positive scouting report on Minor from winter ball.

To complete the trade, Beattie gave the Orioles a list of young players from which to choose, and they picked Julio, based on some of their own evaluations from winter ball.

"I'd never seen him pitch," Beattie said. "When you're a general manager and you're trading A-ball players, you don't know who these guys are. You check the reports, you check with your scouts, and you check with your player development guy. We were split. Some guys liked him more than others."

In two short years, Julio has made this into one of the Orioles' best trades in recent memory, becoming a commanding presence in their bullpen by age 24.

After making the leap from Double-A to the big leagues in 2001, Julio came to spring training last year and dominated. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove talked about using a closer-by-committee approach with Julio, Buddy Groom and Willis Roberts, but the Orioles kept giving Julio the ball in the ninth inning, and he rarely let them regret it.

He finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, behind Toronto's Eric Hinske and teammate Rodrigo Lopez.

Julio posted a 1.99 ERA, fourth best among AL relievers, and he might have had a better chance at the rookie award, but the Orioles didn't provide him with a single save opportunity after Aug. 15.

The team went 4-32 down the stretch, and Julio finished the season with 25 saves in 31 chances.

"It was hard because everyone said I could maybe save 30-some games," Julio said. "I was ready. Everybody in the bullpen was ready."

Beattie remembers the scouting report on Julio showing his terrific arm strength. But that's about all Julio had in those days. He was 2-10 with a 5.90 ERA for Single-A Jupiter in 2000, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn't even 2 to 1.

Now, when Beattie watches Julio pitch, he sees someone who can throw a 98-mph fastball, a sharp-breaking slider and a fast-developing change-up.

Considering opponents hit just .213 against him last year, it wouldn't seem he had much he could improve this year, but the change-up should help keep hitters off balance.

In seven games this spring, spanning seven innings, Julio has allowed just three hits and one earned run. He has yet to walk a batter.

"[Julio] came into camp in terrific shape," said Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley. "He continues to improve. He keeps the ball down more consistently now. He's a power guy, and power guys sometimes their motor speeds up on them, but as he gets older and more mature that will happen less."

Julio said he is taking nothing for granted this spring, even with a year as the closer under his belt. He looks around the clubhouse and sees Groom and the newly acquired Kerry Ligtenberg, who had 30 saves for the Atlanta Braves in 1998.

Groom and Ligtenberg would be available to close if Julio faltered, but as Hargrove said, "We don't plan on him faltering."

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