Orioles now have one shoulder fewer to lean on

February 13, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It's amazing how fast the glass can go from half full to half empty.

One day, you're talking about the renewed depth of the Orioles' pitching staff. The next, you're wondering if previously ignored free agent Steve Trachsel will be able to cure what ails it.

This little competitive sea change was brought to you by Orioles starting pitcher Kris Benson, who recently informed the club he has a partially torn rotator cuff and might not be up to the challenge of completing his current contract.

Sorry to sound so businesslike at a time such as this, but the sudden revelation that one of the veteran cornerstones of the Orioles' starting rotation might miss the entire 2007 season raises as many questions as it answers.

Apparently, Benson has been pitching with shoulder discomfort for some time, so it's not like he tore something playing offseason basketball or picking up a bag of the money he got for winning 11 games last year. In fact, he was examined by the Orioles medical staff a few weeks ago and cleared to pitch this spring, according to a highly placed baseball source.

Though it is not unusual for a high-priced athlete to get a second or third medical opinion, the fact that the team feels he's healthy enough to pitch and Benson feels that he's not leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is more to this story than meets the supraspinatus tendon.

Benson may well be feeling more discomfort than he let on during his first season with the Orioles and is not willing to embark on another painful season that could lead to further damage to his valuable shoulder. He also may have decided that it is better to get it repaired while the Orioles are obligated to pay him $7.5 million for the final guaranteed year of his contract than risk another big free-agent payday if it blows out completely this season.

In short, it's possible the whole perplexing scenario might not be playing out this way if the Orioles had picked up his option for 2008.

Keep in mind, this is all speculation. Benson's private life might be an open book - and a racy Web site - but his medical charts are not a matter of public record. The conclusions drawn here are based on the best information available, sort of like yesterday's optimistic column about the Orioles' pitching staff that now seems about as relevant as Rex Grossman's regular-season passer rating.

The only thing that's certain is the Orioles didn't need this. They looked like they were going to open spring training with adequate pitching depth for the first time in years. Instead, they were forced to dip back into a very shallow free-agent market to shore up the rotation three days before their first pitcher-catcher workout in Fort Lauderdale.

The potential loss of Benson is just another in a series of well-publicized stumbles for a team that can't seem to get a break, but it remains to be seen just what the actual impact will be. Though the Orioles don't relish the likelihood that they'll have to pay him $8 million (including the $500,000 buyout for the declined 2008 option) to rehab, he hardly qualifies as irreplaceable.

If the club finalizes the hasty deal with Trachsel, who was 15-8 with a 4.97 ERA last season, it's possible that the Orioles might not even miss Benson, whose productivity has never matched his potential. But the cost of his 11 Orioles victories ($15.5 million and young pitcher John Maine, minus any insurance recovery) assures that this will be viewed as another dismal chapter in the team's star-crossed recent history.

That's unfortunate, because the Benson deal - which also sent Jorge Julio to the Mets - was applauded at the time and made perfect sense right up until it backfired. The real danger is that the negative backlash will make the Orioles more reticent to consider free agents and trade targets that don't have perfect medical profiles.

Owner Peter Angelos has long been a stickler for comprehensive medical reviews - and has pulled out of a couple of free-agent deals after receiving adverse information. He approved the Benson deal in spite of a spotty medical history that included Tommy John surgery and a previous shoulder issue, which only figures to make him more reluctant to take any similar risks in the future. That might seem prudent after another expensive acquisition went awry, but the Orioles are not in a position to shut off any potential avenues to improvement.

Winning teams take chances, as the world champion St. Louis Cardinals did with banged-up pitcher Chris Carpenter and the Detroit Tigers did with power-hitting outfielder Magglio Ordonez. The Orioles need to keep that in mind and keep trying to move forward.

If they do, this might only be a minor setback.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Due to a production error, part of Peter Schmuck's column in yesterday's editions was printed in a distorted typeface. To read the column, go to baltimoresun.com/schmuck.

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