Depth perception

Starting staff might lack an ace, but it appears strong from top to bottom

Orioles Preview

Baseball 2006

April 02, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

For 15 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, pitching coach Leo Mazzone presided over a staff that came to symbolize mound excellence.

He tutored Cy Young Award winners, All-Starsand clutch playoff performers.

In few seasons during that span did Mazzone have to worry about not having a legitimate staff ace. Some years, he had three of them.

But when Mazzone decided to leave Atlanta and join his best friend, Sam Perlozzo, in Baltimore, he inherited a starting staff without glittering resumes. No current Orioles starter has ever won more than 15 games in a season. No current Orioles starter has ever posted an ERA lower than 3.57 over a full major league season. No current Orioles starter has ever pitched in a playoff game.

Mazzone doesn't care.

"If you have a chance to have a good starting pitched game every night, what . . . more do you want?" he asked. "I think we have a chance to be pretty darn good."

Although baseball pundits pay little heed to the Orioles' rotation, team officials believe Rodrigo Lopez, Erik Bedard, Kris Benson, Daniel Cabrera and Bruce Chen have made the club's main weakness in recent years into one of its biggest strengths.

In fact, Orioles officials believe the addition of Mazzone, the majors' most celebrated pitching coach, and Ramon Hernandez, a top defensive catcher, could help the rotation become one of the most solid staffs in the American League.

"They have the chance to be the part that carries us and gets us going," Perlozzo said of his starters, four of whom left camp for a while to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. "We've got guys that have a chance to go out there every day and win the ballgame. I don't know that we've had that the last couple of years.

"Leo is not a miracle worker. He's going to help these guys, but it's not like he can go out there, especially in one month, and change a guy's total career around. I think over the course of the season is where you are going to see it."

Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan, a former Cy Young Award and 20-game winner, said sending out five pitchers who have enjoyed some big league success is far more important than having a dominant No. 1 and a little rotation depth.

The combined record of the rotation entering the 2006 season is 177-173, the first time since 2001 that the Orioles' Opening Day staff has a cumulative winning record entering a season.

"A lot of times you walk in and you say, 'Hey, who's pitching tonight?' and you are going to feel good about the game going on," said Flanagan, who became a vice president in December 2002. "I don't think we have a question mark there at all. It's the best staff we've had since I've been here."

Said Chen: "With us having five good starters and having a chance to win every day, I think that's more important than having a guy that is supposed to win every fifth day and a bunch of other guys that may or may not win."

Lopez, the Orioles' Opening Day starter, has won 15 games in two different seasons, including last year. The 30-year-old right-hander's career 4.56 ERA suggests he's miscast as a club's No. 1, but he is durable and pitches some of his best games against the heavyweights of the AL East.

Bedard, a 27-year-old power lefthander who will be the Orioles' second starter, was on his way to the All-Star Game last year before a knee injury cost him nearly two months. He was never the same when he returned, winning just once in his last 15 starts, but team officials say he is closer to the pitcher he was for the first month and a half.

Benson, a right-hander acquired from the New York Mets in an offseason trade, has never matched the lofty projections that accompanied his arrival in the big leagues in 1999; however, he was 10-8 last year with a 4.13 ERA and gave the Mets a chance to win in most of his outings.

Cabrera, 24, a 6-foot-7 right-hander whose fastball is consistently delivered in the high 90s, is viewed by scouts and baseball executives as a future No. 1 starter, though he can be as confounding as he is dominating. Chen, probably the team's most consistent starter last season, has pitched for eight major league teams, including the Braves, but the left-hander reunites with Mazzone six seasons later with better breaking stuff and more confidence.

"I think you have five solid guys," Mazzone said. "You have a No. 1 and a No. 2 there before their careers are over, and that's Cabrera and Bedard. You have Benson, a solid major league starter. You have Rodrigo Lopez, a tremendous competitor who knows how to win, and Bruce Chen is coming off a real good year."

None is currently considered a No. 1 starter, but that doesn't matter to the Orioles.

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