Ryan unlikely to relieve Julio as O's closer in final month of season

September 09, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

SOMEBODY TRIED to stir up a closer controversy the other night, suggesting that maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to flip-flop Jorge Julio and setup man B.J. Ryan for a few weeks just to see what's what.

Manager Lee Mazzilli didn't bite, but the guy asking the question (a nice-looking fellow in a blousy Hawaiian shirt that makes him look 20 pounds lighter) was not satisfied.

Ryan has been the most effective reliever in the Orioles' bullpen. Julio is a talented young man who remains prone to the untimely walk and the long fly ball that can knock over a $7 beer in the 11th row of the bleachers. It seems like a no-brainer.

But you probably won't see Ryan in the closer role this month, because this month doesn't really mean anything. The Orioles are going to let Julio work the kinks out and, they hope, run off a string of impressive ninth innings as he has on a couple of other occasions during this roller-coaster season.

Hook Mazzilli or Mike Flanagan or Dartmouth-educated Jim Beattie up to a polygraph machine and ask whom they would rather see on the mound in a title-deciding save opportunity, and I'm guessing they all would say Ryan -- no contest. It's just that there isn't going to be a big save opportunity anytime soon, and the decision to demote Julio would damage the club's chances of competing for a playoff berth next year.

Right now, with the Orioles looking way up at .500, it's all about the winter and what kind of package the team might be able to put together for a premier starting pitcher. Julio might be in that package, but he won't be worth nearly as much if there is a perception around the major leagues that the Orioles have given up on his potential to be a top-flight closer.

I'm not just making this up. That rationale has been articulated in the Orioles' front office. The club still feels Julio could eventually develop into one of the best closers in the game, but it probably won't happen by next year, and the organization can't afford to have many more Tuesday nights if they hope to be a postseason team in 2005.

In a perfect Orioles world, the team will be able to sign two free-agent starting pitchers this winter and continue to groom Julio for someday. He is, after all, a 25-year-old guy who throws 98 mph. If the free-agent market runs dry, however, they'll still need to do something dynamic to improve the starting rotation.

Next spring, all bets will be off. If Julio and Ryan both are in the Orioles' bullpen, there is a good chance they will be pitching in a different order. Julio may not like moving back into a setup role, but it might be just the thing to help him get to the next level of effectiveness.

There are several potential free-agent pitchers who figure to be on the Orioles' shopping list, including the Boston Red Sox's Derek Lowe, Florida Marlins right-hander Carl Pavano and erstwhile Phillies ace Kevin Millwood.

Former University of Maryland star Eric Milton (13-4) is having an excellent season in Philadelphia and also will be eligible for free agency, but there is concern that he is too vulnerable to the long ball to be effective at Camden Yards.

Milton ranks second in the major leagues with 38 home runs allowed.

Though I make fun of WBBF sports anchor Bruce Cunningham on occasion (and God knows he deserves it), he rates a sincere hooray for his volunteer effort as local host of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. The telethon raised a record $907,000 in the Baltimore area, and Bruce didn't even ask for a hairspray allowance.

In case you were wondering, Beattie does not take offense to my frequent references to his Ivy League education, but he does see some irony in it.

"All through college, I was a dumb jock. Now, I'm Dartmouth-educated," he said recently, oblivious to the additional irony that a Cal State Fullerton-educated sportswriter keeps making an issue of it.

You can have your fancy diploma. Did I mention that the Titans just won their fourth College World Series?

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

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