Chen or Pavano: O's get bargain

April 16, 2005|By John Eisenberg

THE PITCHING matchup said it all last night at Camden Yards: Carl Pavano against Bruce Chen.

Starting for the Yankees, a much-desired free agent who turned down $40 million from the Orioles just a few months ago.

Starting for the Orioles, a reclamation project who probably would be in the minors if Pavano had said yes to them.

One is a piece of the puzzle, the other a prayer.

That's the Yankees and Orioles this season: The team that buys whatever it wants against a team that balked at making substantive upgrades last winter.

Pavano and Chen.

One pitching for a team that spends so much it's bound to be good.

The other pitching for a team that has upside potential but needs for unlikely good things to happen, like Chen coming through as the No. 5 starter after passing through eight organizations.

It doesn't seem like a level playing field and probably isn't, but the Orioles seem intent on defying the odds. They won two of three games at Yankee Stadium last weekend, and they beat the Yankees again last night, 8-1, with Chen out-pitching Pavano for the win.

The long haul of 162 games is likely to tell a different story, but no one in Baltimore wants to hear it with the Orioles finally beating up on the Yankees for the first time in a while.

Right now, what people want to hear is that Chen, 27, is showing signs of becoming that unlikely good thing, having pitched effectively in two starts against the Yankees. Last night, he turned in the Orioles' first complete game of 2005, a four-hitter in which he was never seriously pressed.

"I'm proud of having done that. The Yankees are a real good team," Chen said.

Pavano wasn't as sharp and wound up with the loss. For one night at least, the Orioles were thrilled he turned them down.

The last time he was in town, they tried to sway him like a college football power on the trail of a 17-year-old star quarterback. He was a free agent on a tour of prospective landing places last December, and the Orioles went all out.

Pavano dined with owner Peter Angelos, worked out at Camden Yards and visited the Babe Ruth Museum. As he toured the Camden Yards playing field, the Orioles put his picture on the scoreboard - wearing their uniform - and had the public address announcer introduce him as their Opening Day starter.

Last night, he was derisively waved off the same field after the Orioles knocked him out during a seven-run sixth inning.

In the long run, it figures to become more evident why the Orioles chased so hard after a pitcher who won 18 games for the Marlins in 2004.

"We all know what kind of a pitcher [Pavano] is. You don't do what he did last year by mistake," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said.

But when he turned down the Orioles, it left an opening at the bottom of the rotation for Chen. Originally a top prospect for the Braves, he has made almost twice as many starts in the minors (137) as majors (70) and seemingly was a lost cause after passing through seven organizations between April 2002 and May 2004.

This time a year ago, he was in Syracuse with the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate, his 10th minor league team. His acquisition by the Orioles was for "future considerations," a minimal amount of cash. The Blue Jays basically gave him away.

When he joined the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Ottawa, he decided it was time to try throwing a changeup, a pitch he had previously avoided.

"I was at a point in my career where I needed to do something," he said. "It's really worked out for me. Throwing it is what has gotten me back to the big leagues."

Chen throws about as hard as former Oriole Scott McGregor, which isn't hard at all, but he has an array of pitches he throws for strikes, and he's a perfect fit with Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller, whose mantra is "throw strikes, change speeds, work fast." Chen threw 67 of 102 pitches for strikes last night.

You aren't assured of receiving quality pitching just because you paid a lot of money for it. The Rockies invested $175 million in Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle a few years ago only to watch them flop. Chan Ho Park has won just 14 games since signing with the Rangers for $65 million four years ago.

Meanwhile, there are guys in the minors who know how to pitch and can win their share of games in the majors if they land in the right circumstances or, say, add a new pitch.

The Orioles would have been laughed at last winter for suggesting they preferred Chen to Pavano. It certainly wasn't their choice.

But occasionally, moves you're forced to make end up making you look smart.

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