No-decision

ON BASEBALL

O's face tough call on keeping struggling starter

Steve Trachsel

May 06, 2008|By DAN CONNOLLY

Glance at the important numbers -- the record (1-4), the ERA (7.43) and the age (37) -- and what to do with Orioles starter Steve Trachsel seems obvious.

Dump him. Cut him and your losses and give his rotation spot to a young pitcher who might be part of this team's future.

But it's just not that easy. In fact, it's a surprisingly tough call.

Because a team such as the 2008 Orioles needs Trachsel -- or a guy like him -- to get through this season. The bullpen, which has been one of the Orioles' strengths so far, needs a consistent Trachsel so it can stay relatively fresh.

Trash Trachsel and the Orioles' most experienced starter becomes Daniel Cabrera, who is 26 and hasn't pitched in his 125th major league game yet.

Having an experienced arm -- or two -- is critical for any rotation, and not because of the highly overrated "veteran leadership" tag. The toughest thing for a big league pitcher to do is keep his team in the game when he doesn't have his best stuff.

Most young pitchers have trouble doing it. Cabrera, who seems to be improving in that area this season, is a prime example. When he's on, he's almost unhittable, piling up strikeouts and innings. But when he is off -- at least in the past -- you could expect him to hit the showers by the fifth or earlier.

That's the danger of giving several young starters a shot at the same time. They inevitably throw too many pitches when they aren't sharp, resulting in an early hook and a bullpen that has to pitch four or more innings.

Do that too often and the relievers wear down and lose effectiveness. Consequently, the team starts dropping close games and fading late, and nothing is more deflating for a young club. We've seen that around here a lot. That's why consistent innings eaters are essential, even if they aren't as talented as the youth around them.

That's why Trachsel is here. The Orioles aren't expecting a 20-game winner. They just want reliability.

Last year, he was signed as a fill-in for injured starter Kris Benson in February and made 25 starts for the Orioles before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs at the end of August (for Scott Moore and Rocky Cherry). He did nothing extraordinary with the Orioles. He was 6-8 with a 4.48 ERA and had more walks than strikeouts.

But as he has for much of his big league career, which began in 1993, he kept the bullpen inactive until the seventh or later plenty of nights.

Trachsel has reached the 200-inning plateau in a season seven times. Divide his career starts into his career innings and it comes out almost exactly to 6.0.

That's what the Orioles thought they were getting when they re-signed him this February to a minor league deal that's now worth $1.5 million.

Six starts into the season, he has been the club's most unreliable starter.

Trachsel has pitched six or more innings only twice -- and he hasn't reached seven. Even worse, in three of his past four starts he hasn't gone beyond three innings. In comparison, he failed to get through four innings only twice with the 2007 Orioles.

For his part, Trachsel has accepted responsibility like a seasoned pro.

"I'm not real happy," Trachsel said after another three-inning loss Sunday. "I don't know what else to say. I just haven't been getting the job done lately."

The Orioles don't know what to say or do, either. They don't have any experienced starters to turn to in the minors. The young guys they thought were ready -- Garrett Olson, Jim Johnson, Matt Albers -- are already with the big club. Adding someone who is still attempting to figure out Triple-A -- such as Hayden Penn or Radhames Liz -- could hamper development and likely wouldn't solve the abbreviated-outings problem.

It's unlikely the team would move Trachsel into the bullpen to work things out. He has made 416 big league appearances; 415 have come as a starter. And his molasses-slow pace would be even more intolerable when the game is already into its second hour.

On the flip side, it has been six games, rather early to give up on someone with a track record.

"You're not talking about a guy who just came up this year to be in the big leagues. He's been through this before -- a lot of times," Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "As a player, when you play long, you're always going to get tough parts of your career. ... I think he'll figure it out and be able to come out of this."

Meanwhile, it's a difficult spot for the Orioles. They need an effective veteran to go deep so that when a youngster inevitably can't, it doesn't destroy the bullpen. And they need reliability in the rotation so they are not forced to rush any prospects.

The club needs Trachsel to be Trachsel now, so it can protect its future.

But another maddeningly short outing and they'll be forced to make him part of their past.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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