Young pitchers get quick start

Orioles won't wait to see if their arms can get hand in some early success

February 20, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Necessity is a stubborn mistress. The Orioles open spring training camp today with a clubhouse full of starry-eyed young pitchers and a whole lot of growing up to do if they are going to be competitive in the talent-rich American League East.

Can't be helped.

Sometimes you have to throw them into the pool and see if they can swim, and this is one of those times, but out of such uncertainty has grown some good starting rotations.

The surprising Florida Marlins won the World Series last year largely because a group of young starting pitchers came together at just the right time to propel them to a wild-card berth and beyond.

The Anaheim Angels won it all the year before because of the sudden emergence of several impressive youngsters.

If there appears to be a trend forming, it is because the economics of the industry - and a perceived lack of pitching depth throughout the major leagues in the late 1990s - has forced teams to accelerate the development of their best young arms. But it really isn't a new phenomenon.

"We did it in Kansas City after the drug deal," said Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, referring to the cocaine scandal that rocked baseball while he was Royals GM in 1984. "We cleared our roster and brought up Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson out of Double-A ball, but we had some veterans with them."

The Orioles may not have that luxury, unless the front office pulls off a late deal or free-agent acquisition to add experience. Sidney Ponson may be entering his seventh major league season, but he still is a young pitcher himself. Omar Daal has been around, but there's no guarantee he'll be around on Opening Day.

Schuerholz, whose Royals won the world title in 1985, also built a National League dynasty in Atlanta around several outstanding young pitchers, bringing up Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery over a three-year period (1988-1990) - right before the club embarked on a run of 12 straight postseason appearances.

"But we had veterans with them, too," Schuerholz said. "Obviously, that would be best. You like to have a bell cow on the pitching staff who can lead the way. It's one thing for the manager or pitching coach to talk to a young pitcher, but it's entirely different when a veteran player takes a guy aside to counsel him."

When the Orioles' franchise was a pitching stronghold in the 1960s and '70s, the team often made promising pitchers spend a year or two in long relief to get acclimated to the major leagues and absorb the collective wisdom of the veteran pitchers on the staff. Now, it is far more common for teams to try to get the most out of their young arms as quickly as possible.

The Oakland Athletics developed one of the best rotations in baseball in a relatively short time, which has allowed them to be competitive in spite of serious budget restrictions. The nucleus of their staff - Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito - is the envy of the sport.

Of course, all three of those young pitchers were coveted prospects to begin with, but they grew quickly into cornerstone pitchers in the majors. It might have been nice to start them off in low-pressure roles, but in baseball's current economic climate, most teams aren't in a position to waste a year of service time letting a top-quality pitcher dip his toe in the water.

"You just can't afford to do that," said A's general manager Billy Beane, "because most organizations are only going to have that player for six years at the most [because of free agency]. You have to make the most of your zero-to-three players. To spend one of those years as an apprentice is not maximizing the time you have. The development should happen at the minor league level."

That makes sense, even if it sometimes leads to disaster. Chicago Cubs ace Kerry Wood burst upon the baseball scene in 1998 and gained instant star status when he struck out 20 batters in a game, but the heavy workload took such a toll that he underwent reconstructive elbow surgery and lost nearly two seasons.

The Orioles can only hope some of their young pitchers eventually develop into household names, but the focus this spring will be on molding two or three into serviceable starters while the organization works to create a consistent stream of minor league pitching talent.

If Eric DuBose and Matt Riley, for instance, stick in the majors this year and perform adequately enough to secure their places in the rotation, the Orioles will be in a position to acquire a front-line starter to round out the rotation in the winter and wait for the next wave of prospects to break through.

Perhaps by that time, the Orioles will be able to put their youngest starters into a situation where they can learn from established players. That isn't an issue this year, because the club may not have any starters with the experience and track record to mentor the next generation.

"There are some special challenges when you have a lot of young pitchers," said highly regarded St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, "especially if you're expecting your team to compete. It's another thing if you're not expecting to be a competitive club."

The Orioles don't know what to expect. Their chances of being competitive depend largely on how the volatile pitching situation plays out during the next couple of months.

"We've done what we feel is good evaluation of the pitchers we have, and feel their makeup is going to allow them to be the pitchers they can be fairly quickly," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "We think they can be competitive and grow together and be a support group for each other."

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