Bullpen spots up for grabs

Injuries, soaring ERAs combine to leave some holes in Orioles' relief corps, especially from left side

March 10, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The Orioles have 23 relievers in camp, but only two of them, Todd Williams and John Parrish, were on last season's Opening Day roster, and neither of them has pitched this spring because of injuries.

Their projected closer, Chris Ray, doesn't have a career major league save, and their top left-handed setup man, Tim Byrdak, has only 41 major league appearances since the 2000 season.

Less than a month before another baseball season begins, the Orioles' bullpen stands as the team's biggest question mark. Manager Sam Perlozzo would prefer carrying a seven-man relief corps, but as of now, only four of those spots seem assured.

Ray will be the team's closer and LaTroy Hawkins, whom the Orioles acquired in an offseason trade with San Francisco for Steve Kline, will be the club's primary right-handed setup man.

When Williams returns from a sore right shoulder -- he is expected to throw from a mound in the next day or so -- he'll occupy a setup role. Perlozzo said Byrdak would have to struggle mightily this spring to not make the team. But after that, the three other faces who will occupy the Orioles' bullpen are anybody's guess.

"I think our right side should be good if Todd gets healthy and with Chris Ray and Hawkins," Perlozzo said. "Obviously our left-handed side, we've been a little worried about that for a while. We'll see how we go as we approach it, keep our eyes and ears open in case something pops up."

The Orioles' sense of urgency may be growing by the day. Team executives sat behind home plate on Wednesday at Holman Stadium and watched relievers Jim Brower, Ricky Bottalico and Franklyn Gracesqui get roughed up for 10 hits and nine earned runs in five innings in a 9-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bottalico was the worst offender as he gave up five runs, including two homers, in one inning of work, his spring training ERA rising to 36.00.

Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette have been working the phones, inquiring about other team's bullpen depth. But with successful left-handed relievers being such a commodity, the Orioles might have to go with what they have.

That means Byrdak, who was solid last season with an 0-1 record and 4.05 ERA in his first major league action since 2000, and Eric DuBose, a converted starter and changeup specialist, remain the favorites to land the two top left-handed setup roles.

"For us, it's still early in the spring," Flanagan said. "Guys that have good track records usually come around. It's definitely being monitored. I think we're tracking the clubs. They have a general idea what we are looking for."

The Orioles entered spring workouts knowing their bullpen could be a problem area. But they didn't anticipate the rash of injuries they've suffered.

Not only has Williams been out since the second day of camp, right-hander Aaron Rakers (torn labrum) had season-ending surgery last week and Ryan Keefer, a right-hander who held Double-A opposition to a .211 average in 54 appearances in 2005, has been shut down because of a right elbow strain. Both were going to get an opportunity to make the team. Orber Moreno (lower back strain) also has been limited this spring.

"That's four arms that have been here that really haven't been available," Flanagan said. "I think some of the other guys have been thrust into different roles."

The Orioles invited several veteran relievers into camp, hoping that one or two of them would be able to earn a spot. Brower, who was with San Francisco in 2003 and 2004, has stood out the most, before his up-and-down outing on Wednesday. Still, he remains one of the favorites to land a bullpen spot, as other veterans, particularly Bottalico and Vic Darensbourg, have struggled.

At this point, Perlozzo and pitching coach Leo Mazzone aren't concerned about the exact composition of their bullpen. They just want relievers who are going to get outs.

"It doesn't have to be four righties and three lefties," Perlozzo said. "If it comes down to it, we'll just have to go with the seven best."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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