Bullpen holdovers find themselves as long shots

Orioles

February 19, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,Sun reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Rather than tabulate all the free-agent relievers that the Orioles signed this winter, pitcher James Hoey needed only to stay in contact with his family. The math was done for him.

"My father was keeping track. He'd always tell me," Hoey said. "Your parents always look out for your best interests."

Especially when those signings are working against their kid.

Hoey made the steep climb from low Single-A Delmarva to the majors last season and was named the organization's minor league Pitcher of the Year. But it would be a huge upset if he was introduced with the other Orioles on Opening Day.

The odds - and all the new veterans - are stacked against him and many of the other bullpen holdovers.

The Orioles spent $42 million on relievers Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson, making massive repairs to a bullpen that posted a 5.25 ERA last season and ranked as the second worst in the majors. They used 19 pitchers who combined to allow 86 home runs, most in the majors. No other unit permitted hitters to rack up a slugging percentage higher than .478.

Should anyone have been surprised by the overhaul? Actual relief had to come from somewhere. Outside the organization seemed like the logical place to look.

"I pretty much knew it was going to happen," left-hander Kurt Birkins said. "When your bullpen is the second worst in baseball, you know they're going to make some changes."

The four newcomers and closer Chris Ray are virtually assured roster spots, barring injuries or a trade. Williamson, who divided last season between the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres, spent time on the disabled list with elbow injuries and didn't pitch after Aug. 26, but he said yesterday that he hasn't felt this good in two or three years going into spring training.

That leaves two openings if the Orioles keep 12 pitchers, as expected.

One of those spots could go to Todd Williams, whom the Orioles re-signed after non-tendering him.

"I don't feel like I'm competing," said Williams, who reported to camp in better shape than last season after hiring a personal trainer. "It's easy to think that after what happened this winter and how they spent so much on the bullpen. But I feel like, even with all the guys we've got, I still fill a role in there."

If manager Sam Perlozzo wants a second left-hander to join Walker, the competition boils down to Birkins, Brian Burres and John Parrish. Only Parrish failed to pitch for the Orioles last season, after undergoing another elbow surgery. And if Perlozzo is willing to hold on to another right-hander, Hayden Penn, Jeremy Guthrie and Paul Shuey are the leading contenders.

That doesn't bode well for Hoey or Sendy Rleal, who's in camp after posting a 4.44 ERA in 42 appearances for the Orioles last season, with 23 walks and 19 strikeouts.

"If I do a good job and throw like I did last year, I can make the team. Definitely," Rleal said.

Last year's camp also included relievers Ricky Bottalico, Franklyn Gracesqui and Vic Darensbourg, none of whom accompanied the team north or remains in the organization. Aaron Rakers, who didn't pitch last season because of a torn labrum, was designated for assignment after showing promise in 2005. Julio Manon, Winston Abreu and Eddy Rodriguez pitched for the Orioles in '06, often testing Perlozzo's patience, but they're also gone.

"If we were going to spend the money, we obviously needed help in the bullpen," Williams said. "I'm not taking anything away from the guys from last year. A lot of guys were thrown in the fire, young guys, and they did as well as they could in the situations they got put in. Some guys were starters who were put in the 'pen. I give them a lot of credit for what they did.

"We didn't throw that well as a group, but I give them credit for going out there every day and doing what they did. But we filled in some spots, and the bullpen is pretty solid now. I think they did the right thing."

Perlozzo and pitching coach Leo Mazzone made sure to contact some of the younger relievers during the winter so they wouldn't get discouraged.

"There's at least one spot sitting there for somebody," Perlozzo said. "I don't know about health issues. We'll have to see how that plays out. But it's like I told the guys, `Don't assume that you don't have a chance to make the club, because guys go down all the time. You don't want to shortchange yourself.'"

Said Birkins: "He called me during the offseason, him and Leo both, and said there still were a couple spots open and they expected me to battle for it. This is my first major league camp, and I think it'll be fun. I'll be going up against some pretty good guys."

That includes Hoey, who knows exactly how many newcomers are standing in his way, thanks to his inside sources.

"I wasn't worried," Hoey said. "They're going to do what they need to do to win games. They needed to go out and get some veteran relievers and that's fine. Where I fit in, we don't know yet. I'll go out there and fight for my position. If I don't get it, then hopefully during the season I'll get a chance if they need me."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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