SARASOTA, Fla. -- There is little doubt that the biggest question the Orioles have to answer this spring revolves around their starting pitchers.
It could be said that manager Frank Robinson has as many as 10 candidates to fill five spots. In reality, it is not that many.
The problem could be separating the prospects from the suspects.
At the moment, the Orioles' rotation looks like Ben McDonald and friends. You can throw in Dave Johnson as one of the helpers because the righthander has emerged as a consistent, if unspectacular, contributor during the last season and a half.
After that it's a guessing game, and the two names at the top of the list are Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki. They combined to win 32 games in 1989 -- and seven last year.
For the Orioles to develop a dependable rotation, at least one -- and maybe both -- need to demonstrate that last year, not 1989, was the fluke. But Robinson insists he will not rush for an answer from either.
"My thinking is to just give them the entire spring training, and then pass judgment," Robinson said yesterday, one day before all pitchers and catchers were due to report.
Ballard and Milacki will be dealt with differently from the others -- at least at the start. "I'll talk to them to see how they feel physically," said Robinson. "I want to know how they feel. If they say they are fine, then there will be no holding back -- they'll go through the regular routine.
"But if Ballard tells me his elbow is a little tender, or Milacki says his arm is tight, then we'll go slower. I'm not going to go in with the idea they have to pitch a certain number of innings. We'll judge them by how they're throwing the ball at the end of spring training."
Robinson is convinced last year's shortened spring training hampered both Ballard and Milacki. With more than six weeks to prepare this spring, both should have ample time.
Without guaranteeing either Ballard or Milacki a spot in the rotation, Robinson said he wouldn't rule either out at any time before the end of spring training. He also said there will be no rush to establish five starters. "I'm not going into this saying we have to establish a set number of starters by the end of spring training," said Robinson.
"We could start the season with five, four -- maybe even three," he said. "With the off days [the Orioles have four in the shortened month of April, the same number as May and twice as many as June], we might not need more than three guys.
"And if we have guys who are ahead of the others, that's what we'll do. I wouldn't be afraid to do that if I thought it would help us," said Robinson.
The Orioles do not lack for starting candidates. What they lack are proven major-league starters. There isn't one in the bunch, including McDonald, who was 8-5 in the last half of 1990 and is the acknowledged No. 1 man.
Jose Mesa was impressive last September (3-2, 3.42 earned run average), but it was only a seven-game trial. Anthony Telford had his moments (2-2, 4.95), but he's yet to spend a full season above the Single A level. John Mitchell, who has become the forgotten man, was awesome in eight games at Triple A, but inconsistent (6-6, 4.64 earned run average) in the big leagues.
Recently acquired Jeff Robinson (10-9, 5.96) has a strong arm, but a history of late-season physical problems. Jose Bautista (1-0, 4.05) has been on the verge for four years, but never crossed the line between Triple A and the major leagues. Mike Linskey has only one full year above the Single A level and 21-year-old non-roster invitee Arthur Rhodes has the tools, but hasn't yet fully established himself at Double A, and hasn't pitched above that level. Of the non-roster players, Mike Flanagan is the most viable alternative, but he and Jeff Robinson also could fit into relief roles. And it would be a mistake to eliminate Mike Mussina (3-0, 1.49 in 42 innings at Double A, 0-0, 1.35 in 13 innings at Triple A) from consideration merely because of inexperience.
The bullpen, with Gregg Olson in charge and Mark Williamson both resilient and dependable as a setup man, is still the strongest part of the staff -- but not without question marks of its own.
Robinson needs lefthanded help, to replace the departed Joe Price and as insurance against a continued slump by Kevin Hickey. That was a consideration before the spring training invitation to Flanagan was issued. It was also a factor in the trade of Mickey Weston to Toronto for Paul Kilgus.
But those are secondary matters for Robinson, who said last year that he'd like to find another closer to fit in with Olson. It is a desire he repeated on the eve of spring training.
"That is my main concern as far as the bullpen goes," said Robinson. "And I hope Gregg takes it the right way.
"I'd like to have somebody else who can do that job when necessary -- not necessarily somebody who will share it," said Robinson. "I want Gregg out there when we're ahead late in the game, but when he needs a day off, or maybe even before he needs a day off, I'd like to have somebody to go to in that situation.
"I would prefer it to be one guy, but it could be two or more. Maybe it's something we have to do by committee. But I don't want to guess about who I'm going to use in those spots if I can't use Gregg. I want to know ahead of time, not try to figure it out as the game goes on."
Robinson did not mention any names when talking about an alternative closer, but it's a foregone conclusion that whoever it might be will have to come from among those pitchers in camp. Todd Frohwirth, a 6-foot-4 righthander who had 21 saves for Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, will get a long look -- and it would be a mistake to rule Bautista, Robinson or even Flanagan out of this cloudy picture.
Questions, questions. That's what spring training is all about. And it starts here tomorrow.