Don't subtract Penn from equation

February 16, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Perhaps this might be a good time for a brief lecture on the danger of presumption, especially in a sport where the landscape can change dramatically in a short time.

It did just that earlier this week when Kris Benson revealed that his shoulder might require rotator cuff surgery and the Orioles scrambled to sign veteran Steve Trachsel to take his place in the starting rotation.

Trachsel won 15 games for the New York Mets last year - compared with Benson's 11 in Baltimore - so it's certainly possible that the club will benefit, but the Orioles should fight the temptation to assume that the rotation has been sufficiently repaired and everyone behind Trachsel in the pitching food chain is now what second-division teams always refer to as "greatly improved organizational pitching depth."

The Orioles deserve praise for turning on a dime when they got the bad news from Benson, but there were good reasons Trachsel didn't have any plane reservations four days before spring camps opened. He's a high-ERA guy who benefited from outstanding run support last year in a league where he did not have to face a designated hitter every nine outs.

His real appeal is his ability to eat up innings, but that flight to quantity instead of quality only reinforces the need for the coaching staff and the front office to keep a truly open mind about young Hayden Penn.

Of course, everyone at the Orioles spring training complex will tell you the team intends to do just that. Penn is a top prospect and he's part of big-league camp so he has a chance to win a spot in the rotation. Manager Sam Perlozzo was saying just yesterday how "every job is open." That's what they all say during the early weeks of spring training. They might even think they mean it.

But the evaluation process that will take place over the next six weeks will always be colored a little bit green. The Orioles spent $3 million (plus incentives and a 2008 option) on Trachsel, which seems like a modest price until you consider how it will impact the decision-making process.

Objectively, he may be a low-expectation guy right now, but from the standpoint of organizational psychology, he might as well be a $10 million pitcher, because that's about how much the Orioles now will be spending on Benson's old spot in the rotation.

If Trachsel has a difficult spring and Penn starts to bloom, it's going to be very hard for the baseball-operations types to write off that $3 million as just so much good money thrown after bad.

Don't think for a second there wasn't some high-level second-guessing after it became apparent that the Orioles will be paying Benson big bucks not to pitch this year.

It will be too easy to rationalize sending Penn down based on the school of thought that he will benefit from another year in Triple-A. He might, but the Orioles might well be better off with him in the rotation, depending on whether he can make good on yesterday's tough talk about being ready to fight for a major league job.

He had a chance to catch on at the major league level last year and looked overmatched, which raised questions about his makeup. There already are whispers that he isn't ready for prime time and won't be anytime soon. Whispers create preconceived notions. Preconceived notions are the deadbolts of a closed mind.

Cautionary tale: The Los Angeles Dodgers once traded a diminutive young pitcher because the conventional wisdom in the organization was that hard throwers of slight stature lacked long-term durability.

They were right. Pedro Martinez has missed parts of two seasons over the past 13 years and only won 196 games since the deal that sent him to the Montreal Expos.

No one is suggesting a comparison between Martinez and anyone in the Orioles system, but it might not be a bad idea for Sam Perlozzo, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette to remind themselves that the comfort that comes with a known quantity is not always a fair trade-off for unknown potential.

Confidential to Orioles: Count Penn out - and Trachsel definitely in - at your own peril.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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