AL East race could hinge on which way bullpen doors swing

Looking for second-half edge, O's, Red Sox, Yankees aim to straighten out relief corps

July 08, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Orioles relievers Tim Byrdak and Chris Ray were in the minor leagues when the season started, and Jason Grimsley was at home in Kansas, recuperating from elbow ligament-reconstruction surgery.

Wayne Franklin, Scott Proctor and Jason Anderson weren't in the New York Yankees' immediate plans, and Curt Schilling was rehabbing his ankle in hopes of returning as the Boston Red Sox's ace, not a closer.

But after three months filled with enough bullpen meltdowns to prevent any of the three teams from gaining much separation in the American League East, all of the above are likely to play major roles in sorting out the division standings in the coming weeks.

That much was expected from Schilling, but not in the capacity in which Red Sox manager Terry Francona will use him once the right-hander is deemed healthy and sharp enough to face major league hitters.

The Red Sox announced this week that their ace will join the bullpen, likely after next week's All-Star break, and could close games, along with former Oriole Mike Timlin, until Schilling is ready for a return to the starting rotation.

The move was made not just to ease in Schilling, who has made only three starts this season after ankle surgery and has made just one relief appearance since 1992, but also to bolster a bullpen with a 5.54 ERA, second worst in the American League. With struggling closer Keith Foulke (knee) on the disabled list and probably unavailable for at least six weeks, Francona didn't have many options.

"When he volunteers to go to the bullpen all of a sudden, you start looking at it and you say, `You know what, we can turn a negative with Foulke getting hurt into maybe a positive by adding a pitcher of his caliber to the bullpen,' " Francona said. "We don't have the leeway to lose, so you do the best you can and try to find a way to win."

The Yankees, whose relievers had accounted for a 4.04 ERA, sixth worst in the American League entering last night, had already begun the overhaul of their bullpen. Casualties of their recent organizational meetings, veteran relievers Mike Stanton (7.07 ERA) and Paul Quantrill (6.75 ERA) were designated for assignment, and Quantrill has since been traded.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman wanted to get younger in the bullpen, so in came Anderson, 26, and Proctor, 28, who have 31 and 32 appearances, respectively, on their major league resumes.

Franklin (UMBC and North East in Cecil County) and former Oriole Buddy Groom, who turns 40 on Sunday, also are now being counted on to bridge the game between the starters and Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera.

Meanwhile, with Steve Reed and Steve Kline still struggling and setup man Jorge Julio seemingly not the pitcher he was earlier this season, Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, whose relievers have a 4.05 ERA, fifth worst in the American League, acknowledged that he may need to reconsider the path he chooses to get the ball to All-Star closer B.J. Ryan.

"I'll make some adjustments," Mazzilli said. "I'll talk to Kline on that. There's some ideas that I want to throw past him as well."

That could mean Ray, 23, the right-hander whose contract was purchased from Double-A Bowie on June 13, will be used more in the eighth inning, rather than Julio. It also could mean that left-hander Byrdak, who arrived from Triple-A Ottawa on Sunday, will be used more in late innings to get left-handed hitters out, instead of Kline, against whom lefties are hitting .339.

And all of a sudden, Grimsley, who was once expected to miss the entire season, is being counted on to fill a major void. Either way, the Orioles are not looking for bullpen help.

"We're not concerned with our bullpen," said Ed Kenney, the Orioles' director of baseball administration. "Chris Ray has helped and having Jason ready to come back is just adding to our bullpen internally."

Few proven relievers are available anyway and the ones that might be, like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Danys Baez and the Seattle Mariners' Eddie Guardado, are likely to carry a heavy price tag.

"If you are going to get a bullpen guy, you probably are going to be getting him from a team that is out of the race," Kenney said. "I don't think a team that is in a race is going to trade a bullpen guy, unless they have that much excess in the bullpen where they can afford to do it. Not too many teams in baseball can afford to do that."

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