FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles' competition for the closer's job might have ended this spring before it really got started.
The results of a magnetic resonance imaging test confirmed that pitcher Jorge Julio has a strained right forearm, which will put him on a throwing program for the next three weeks and jeopardize his availability for the April 4 opener at Camden Yards.
Julio is bothered by inflammation in the flexor muscle near his elbow, the discomfort becoming apparent only after he throws. He alerted the Orioles of the problem during the winter league season in Venezuela, but he couldn't obtain his visa to leave the country until Jan. 30.
"I don't think we can anticipate anything at this point," executive vice president Jim Beattie said. "We have to see how he comes through the program and how healthy he feels. This probably hurts his chances of starting the season in the closer role, but I don't think we need to sit here today and make that decision."
Said Julio: "It's no big deal ... a couple of weeks. I'm already playing catch."
The strain has become a recurring issue for Julio, who was 22-for-26 in save situations in 2004. He needed treatment during the course of the season.
"It's been an ongoing maintenance thing for him," Beattie said. "He came in this year and was complaining that it was actually sore to the touch. We'll just have to wait and see how it goes.
"He felt OK pitching. It's just that the rest of the time, it's hurting him."
Beattie said the MRI also revealed damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, but the team can't be certain whether it's a recent development or dates to an earlier phase of his career.
Julio will be re-evaluated during the throwing program, which will take place on alternating days on flat ground and eventually move him from 60 to 90 feet in distance. Upon its completion, the Orioles will be halfway through the exhibition schedule.
"Then he'll have about three weeks before the season starts," Beattie said. "He's going to be slowed down and getting treatment every day, and they'll deal with the swelling."
The injury makes it more likely that B.J. Ryan will begin the season as the closer, the same job he held when 2004 ended. Probably the top left-handed setup man in baseball last year before making the switch, Ryan was considered the favorite to close before arriving at camp.
"In both cases, we kind of know what each guy can do," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "It's really a matter of what it's going to take to get to the end of the game."
By signing right-handers Steve Reed and Jay Witasick, the Orioles had enough bullpen depth to trade Julio this spring if they could find the right match. One industry source said the Chicago Cubs retained interest in Julio after failing to get him in the Sammy Sosa trade.
"This will set him back," Beattie said, "but there's still a fair chance that he'll be ready on Opening Day."
Said Mazzilli: "He'll be back on the mound before the season starts. I fully expect him to be ready by Opening Day."
The Orioles shut down Julio in Venezuela after he appeared in eight games. He worked 9 2/3 innings, posting three saves and a 2.79 ERA.
"He stopped pitching and felt much better," Beattie said. "There's always that balance where, sometimes you just can't tell a player, `You're not going to pitch.' He has that right to be able to do that unless he's been overworked, thrown too many innings or had too many games during the season."
The team is encouraged that the strain isn't bothersome enough to completely shut down Julio in camp. He's just restricted from throwing off a mound.
"We kind of have the luxury early on in spring training to accomplish this, hopefully with a good ending," head trainer Richie Bancells said. "It doesn't bother him to play catch, so we are able to start the throwing program right away. That's the good news. After the three-week period, if he's strong enough at that time, we'll probably put him on a mound and see where we are.
"The hardest part about this is, what was he doing in winter ball? At one time early on, he called us and felt like he was being thrown a lot and it was bothering him then. My recommendation at the time was to shut him down, and he saw a doctor down there who said it wasn't a problem. He started throwing again, and it was fine. He was doing great."
One challenge for the Orioles is finding a way to prevent the pain from recurring.
"That's why we're trying to do what we're doing now, this early, to see if we can eliminate things by keeping him off the mound right now and trying to put him in a program to reduce the inflammation and strengthen the arm and shoulder and get everything as right as we can going into the end of the three weeks to get him back on the mound," Bancells said. "That's the fortunate thing about it being discovered now."