Anything's possible

Pitching: Talented, young arms can send a rebuilding program hurtling forward with more speed than a Daniel Cabrera fastball.

The Orioles

April 03, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller looks at his young rotation this spring and sees the 1978 team. Or it could be the Oakland A's of the early '70s. Upon closer inspection, it might actually be the 2003 Florida Marlins.

First base coach Rick Dempsey is reminded of the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, though he also finds similarities to some of the Orioles teams of the past.

Are these guys in the same clubhouse?

Are they in the same year?

Both men recognize the formula. Stack a lineup with explosive bats, trust in your young pitching and keep your fingers crossed.

It has worked before.

The Orioles begin the season with Rodrigo Lopez, 29, as their ace, a right-hander who has twice led the staff in victories but also been shuttled to the bullpen on more than one occasion.

He'll be followed in the rotation by Daniel Cabrera, 23, who's less than a year removed from Double-A. And Erik Bedard, 26, a rookie last season with six major league wins. And Sidney Ponson, 28, the former No. 1 starter who has more arrests than victories since December.

When the Orioles roll out the orange carpet Opening Day, they'll also be rolling the dice.

"I don't put a whole lot of stock in the numbers one through five because ones don't always match up with ones. One rainout and you're matching up with fives," vice president Mike Flanagan said.

"You try to find the five who give you the best chance to win and you run with them. Order doesn't mean a whole lot to me."

History means a little something to Miller and Dempsey.

For Miller, it can be recent. It can be the 2003 Marlins.

"They had [A.J.] Burnett, [Josh] Beckett, [Dontrelle] Willis," Miller said. "People were saying, `Boy, in a couple years they're going to have a pretty good pitching staff,' and they won the World Series that year.

"Talent is talent. I don't care how you look at it."

Miller is looking at it from different eras. He can go back 27 years, to his first season as pitching coach with the Orioles, and find similarities.

"This is the best bunch of talent," he said, "since I first came here in 1978."

He rattles off the names of the unknowns back then: Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Dennis Martinez, Sammy Stewart. He goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Oakland put together its rotation that included Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Blue Moon Odom.

"It was a young staff that stayed together and won," he said. "We have a chance to do that. I'm not putting us in that category, but I think the talent is good enough."

Dempsey won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1988, catching the likes of Tim Belcher and Tim Leary, two pitchers with much to prove.

"That was pretty much like the Bedard-Cabrera combination," he said. "It was just a phenomenal year for those guys and they emerged. Cabrera could do that, and so could Bedard. They've looked the best of any two pitchers in camp.

"And when you look back at our heyday with the Orioles when Mike Flanagan came in. There's Bedard. And Cabrera came in - the same thing as [Mike] Boddicker and Storm Davis and all these guys who were just starting to emerge in the major leagues."

One glaring difference could be blinding to the Orioles. The Dodgers' rotation was anchored by Orel Hershiser, who set the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings in '88. The Orioles had three-time Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer.

Nobody on the current Orioles staff will be confused with Hershiser or Palmer.

"They were great influences on the rest of the young guys," Dempsey said. "We don't have that one guy who sticks out here, but it could be that Sidney steps up."

But the dice are rolling before the carpet is.

Ponson started out 3-12 last year, and his offseason has been just as harsh. He was arrested Christmas Day after an altercation on a beach in Aruba that resulted in an 11-day jail stay. He was charged in January with driving under the influence and speeding in Fort Lauderdale, an incident that went unnoticed by team officials until two months later. And he showed up for a recent workout with his right hand swollen after an altercation in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant, shortly before his demotion to fourth starter.

"Sidney's had some success in the past," outfielder B.J. Surhoff said. "He had a little bit of trouble last year and his spring hasn't been the most joyous ride, but once the season starts, that shouldn't really matter.

"We're in a situation like most teams where we don't have a clear-cut, dominant No. 1," Surhoff added. "There are only a handful of them out there. We have five starters, and they pitch every fifth day. I don't look at them as a one, two, three, four and five. I just don't think we have that type of staff.

"We have five starters and whoever pitches that day, pitches that day. Hopefully every day, the guys compete and give us a chance to win. But they're all kind of lumped in together right now. Hopefully, we'll get some development out of them."

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