For starters, O's counting on their youth

Pitching ability is there, but so are questions for largely unproven staff

`No parallels' to Rangers

Improved offense, defense could also ease burden

February 21, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie can hear the scoffs, and he isn't listening.

The Orioles, despite all the additions they made this offseason, didn't do enough to address their pitching, critics say. They're all offense now. They've turned themselves into the Texas Rangers.

"There are no parallels [between the Orioles and Texas]," Beattie said. "People say that because they don't know the names. They take comfort, generally, in someone that's established, and we couldn't add established players across the board."

In Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles added three players who combined to hit 108 home runs last season. But as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training yesterday, the uncertainties about the starting rotation were unavoidable.

On his first day as the new manager, Lee Mazzilli was in no position to offer assurances.

"I think more people are concerned, and that's what you hear about: the pitching is young," Mazzilli said. "We know it's young pitching, but all the good pitchers in baseball started out as young, unproven pitchers.

"We, as an organization, with Beattie and [vice president Mike] Flanagan, know the pitching that they like and they believe in. And you know, I'm going to have to get a chance to see them during spring training."

If the Orioles were to list an official depth chart for the starting pitchers in this camp, it might look something like this: Sidney Ponson, Rodrigo Lopez, Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley, Omar Daal, John Stephens, Denny Bautista, David Crouthers, John Maine and Erik Bedard.

Rick Bauer, it should be noted, is probably headed back to the bullpen. He said yesterday that he's open to starting but hasn't been told to expect a role change.

Otherwise, it's a group with unmistakable promise and unmistakable uncertainty. Questions abound for each pitcher on that list.

Ponson, 27, pitched 216 innings last season, going 17-12 combined with the Orioles and San Francisco Giants. But is he ready to be the ace?

Lopez, 28, went 7-10 with a 5.82 ERA last season after a superlative rookie campaign, and then struggled during winter ball with the Culiacan Tomato Growers.

DuBose, 27, emerged last year by going 3-5 with a 3.71 ERA in 10 starts, but the left-hander's big league experience consists of 79 2/3 innings.

Ainsworth, 25, made the San Francisco Giants' starting rotation last spring and impressed scouts before fracturing his right shoulder blade. His total big league experience, however, consists of 96 innings.

Riley, 24, renewed everyone's faith with a pair of brilliant five-inning starts against the Toronto Blue Jays in September. But the hard-throwing left-hander has just 21 innings of big league experience.

Daal, 32, is feeling healthier after missing two months last season with tendinitis in his left rotator cuff. But the Orioles will wait to see if he has regained any velocity on his fastball before getting their hopes up.

From there, the list drops to candidates the Orioles don't want to think about as legitimate candidates just yet.

Stephens made 11 big league starts in 2002 but spent all of last season at Triple-A Ottawa. Bautista and Maine are two of the organization's top pitching prospects, but Beattie said the tentative plan is to start both at Double-A Bowie.

Beattie also said Bedard could probably use some more time in the minor leagues as he completes his recovery from reconstructive elbow surgery.

Clearly, starting pitching is the first area the Orioles would likely address if they can swing a trade this spring. Perhaps they'll be able to package a second baseman (Jerry Hairston or Brian Roberts) and a left-handed reliever (Buddy Groom, Buddy Ryan or John Parrish) with a prospect for a veteran starter.

But the Orioles haven't expressed an overwhelming sense of urgency to do so.

Last year, the Orioles ranked 10th in the American League in runs scored with 743, and their ERA was 10th at 4.76. Texas has had the league's worst ERA for three of the past four years.

Entering the offseason, Beattie and Flanagan considered the strengths of the organization and decided they had waves of pitching prospects coming: After Riley, DuBose and Ainsworth, it'll be Bautista and Maine, followed perhaps by Crouthers, Adam Loewen, Don Levinski and Ryan Hannaman.

So they spent most of their money addressing the offense. With Tejada at shortstop, Melvin Mora at third base, Palmeiro at first base and Lopez at catcher, the Orioles think their defense has improved as well.

With an improved offense, an improved defense and a veteran bullpen (which includes free-agent addition Mike DeJean), several factors are combining to help the Orioles' young pitchers succeed.

"They'll give up some runs," Beattie said. "But it's much easier for them to come out of the latter part of the ballgame and be tied 3-3 or 4-4 rather than being behind 4-1. They're still in the ballgame.

"That is part of easing their transition to the big leagues. So we're going to rely on them, push them and get more innings out of them."

A year ago at this time, the Orioles had other uncertainties. But by season's end, center fielder Luis Matos, left fielder Larry Bigbie and second baseman Brian Roberts had established themselves as big league regulars.

The Orioles can only hope they're as fortunate with DuBose, Ainsworth, Riley and Co.

"We need those guys to step up," Beattie said. "And we're going to give them an opportunity to do that."

Key Orioles dates

Tuesday: Position players report to spring camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Wednesday: First full-squad workout

March 4: Exhibition opener, vs. Marlins in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

April 3: Exhibition finale, vs. Reds in Chattanooga, Tenn.

April 4: Opening Day, vs. Red Sox at Camden Yards, 8:05 p.m.

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