Making A Fresh Start

O's rotation won't have new look, but Miller expects better results

Spring Training

February 19, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Ray Miller flips on the television and is reminded again about the baseball industry's perception of his starting rotation. No matter which buttons he hits on his remote, negativity spews from the screen. He'd be better served if the cable went out.

So why is this man smiling?

Rehired as pitching coach on June 26, Miller strolls through the clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium as though he's carrying more than a clipboard. He's also got a secret.

"I like hearing that our pitching isn't good enough, and I've been hearing it all over," Miller said earlier this week, before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to camp today. "People are always talking about Boston and New York, and they say if only our pitching was better. Well, I think it is better."

It won't be much different, and that's all the experts care about, all they can focus on, all that Miller is exposed to on a nightly basis.

The Yankees traded for five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson and signed Carl Pavano, who toured Camden Yards in December. The Red Sox signed Matt Clement, David Wells and Wade Miller.

Hopeful of lowering Sidney Ponson in the rotation, perhaps to third or fourth, the Orioles didn't sign Pavano or complete a proposed trade for Oakland's Tim Hudson. They expressed interest in A.J. Burnett, but he remains in the Florida Marlins' camp.

None of this has tempted Miller to straddle his Harley Davidson and speed off to New Athens, Ohio, and back into retirement.

"I'm excited. I wouldn't have come back if I wasn't," he said. "I personally think our pitching's much, much better than the world knows."

It will have to be for the Orioles to contend. The lineup gained Sammy Sosa, the bullpen Steve Kline and Steve Reed. The bench is deeper with utility infielder Chris Gomez. But the rotation still lacks an intimidating presence at the top, and still is short on experience.

"I feel pretty good about it," said Rodrigo Lopez, who has a chance to unseat Ponson as the No. 1 starter. "They trust the guys we've got here. Everybody here, including me, is pretty young. But with the guys we have in the lineup, we can score a lot of runs and give us a lot of support and make us feel secure when we pitch. I think we'll be fine."

Miller sounds relieved that Pavano turned down the Orioles' offer of $40 million over four years, and that the club didn't overspend for other marginal talents. He'd rather play the hand he's been dealt, unwilling to fold so early in the game.

"I wouldn't sink the whole boat into one guy who's going to pitch 30 games, unless he's a sure thing, like the kid from Oakland [Hudson]. He's a bona fide, great-stuff guy," Miller said. "Nothing against Pavano, but these guys had one [good] year out of five, and you're talking about spending $10 million, $12 million for them. I think we've got just as good here.

"It puts pressure on us, but these guys are good. They believe in themselves and we have a lot of depth. Right now I can give you 16 names off that chart right there who could make this club. That many won't, but there's some pretty good talent.

"If we can keep it simple and carry on what we did last year, we'll be plenty good."

After Miller's arrival, the starters' ERA dropped from 5.94 to 5.05. They were 14-7 with a 3.38 ERA in the last 32 games.

"Isn't that what young pitchers are supposed to do? They're supposed to improve over the course of a season. And a lot of it is due to Ray, no doubt about it," executive vice president Jim Beattie said.

"What he did, a different voice, the way he approached things - the whole pitching staff took to him. I think we just don't have the names that everybody's going to fall in love with, but at the same time, the young pitchers did what we needed them to do.

"The bullpen's strong enough to pick us up on occasion, but to compete and win, it's obviously going to come down to our starting pitching. It's a question mark. You'd certainly love to have 20-game winners out there, but we don't have that. I think we've got some guys who are capable of doing that in the future. We'll all just have to wait and see how it develops."

"To me," manager Lee Mazzilli said, "our pitching is better than people think it is. No question."

Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Matt Riley, with a combined 71 major league starts, could again fill out the bottom third of the rotation. But the Orioles are holding two wild cards - Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose - who missed most of last season with injuries.

Ainsworth had fluid drained from his right elbow joint, and DuBose had three bone chips and two spurs taken out of his left elbow. They will spend the next six weeks trying to convince Mazzilli that they're ready to become starters again.

Both pitchers arrived in camp earlier this week, joining the likes of Ponson, Lopez, Riley, Rick Bauer, B.J. Ryan and John Parrish, who agreed to a one-year contract Thursday and avoided arbitration.

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