Orioles will have luxury of choice in pitching talent

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jeff Ballard has been hanging around Twin Lakes Park for the better part of a week now, and he has not been lonely. The Baltimore Orioles officially open spring training with their first sanctioned pitcher and catcher workouts today, but most of the pitchers who were scheduled to report to camp yesterday did not want to wait that long.

There are 45 days of workouts ahead, yet nearly half the players on the club's spring-training attendance sheet (including many who were not due until next week) arrived for work early. The position players are here for a variety of reasons, but the pitchers -- with a few prominent exceptions -- have come for only one: to compete for a place on a crowded Orioles pitching staff, and there is no time to lose.

"This is the deepest pitching staff we've had at the start of camp since I've been here," said pitching coach Al Jackson, who certainly has seen leaner times. "Three years ago, we had two real candidates for the starting rotation. Now we have at least seven, and there could be more after I see a couple of guys I'm not as familiar with."

General manager Roland Hemond likes to call the Orioles organization "The Birdland of Opportunity," but that previously was a reflection of the wide-open spaces on a thin roster. Several jobs are open this spring, but the competition for them is expected to be fierce.

Hemond has spent the winter gathering pitchers. He traded Mickey Tettleton to the Detroit Tigers for Jeff Robinson. He signed former Minnesota Twins right-hander Roy Smith. He even invited 39-year-old Mike Flanagan and 45-year-old Jim Palmer for spring training auditions. The Orioles lost Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling in the Glenn Davis trade, but have gone to great lengths to fill the talent gap.

"What we've done is created competition," Jackson said, "and that's great for the Baltimore Orioles."

It is not so great for some of the candidates for the starting rotation, at least eight of whom were in someone's major-league rotation for all or a significant part of the 1990 season.

Right-hander Ben McDonald has nothing to worry about. Neither does 13-game winner Dave Johnson. But that leaves five pitchers for the remaining three slots before any of the club's promising minor-league pitchers have been taken into consideration.

Manager Frank Robinson was impressed with the late-season performance of Jose Mesa, who has come back from reconstructive elbow surgery to regain his 90-mph fastball. He earned strong consideration with a string of seven 1990 starts in which opposing hitters batted just .218.

Ballard and right-hander Bob Milacki sore-armed themselves out of the rotation last season, but appear to be the leading candidates for the other two places.

"I expected that," Ballard said. "I told Roland after the season, I don't want to have to come to spring training to win a spot. It should be my spot to lose. I had a bad year last year for a lot of reasons, but I should have one of the five spots unless I fall on my face."

Robinson seems to agree. He hasn't forgotten that Ballard and Milacki combined to win 32 games in 1989. He also hasn't forgotten that they combined to win only seven last year.

"We all know that they were both hurting last year," he said. "Ballard's arm got stronger as the year went on, but he wasn't right. If they are healthy, I don't see why they can't get back to '89 form."

That could be the difference between third place and a division championship, but so could a strong comeback season from newly acquired Jeff Robinson, who won 10 games last year despite a 5.96 ERA. Smith, who was released by the Twins after a 5-10 season, is an unknown quantity, but Orioles officials still give him an outside chance to make the team.

The club also has to consider right-handers John Mitchell and Anthony Telford and perhaps even Flanagan, though he seems more likely to end up in the bullpen. Rookies Mike Mussina, Mike Linskey and Arthur Rhodes will get special attention, but only so the manager will be familiar with them if the club has to dig into the minor leagues for help later in the season.

If the starting rotation is replete with viable candidates, the bullpen is not. Setup man Mark Williamson has recovered from a broken hand, and stopper Gregg Olson has regained his strength after a grueling 1990 season, but Robinson might have trouble getting to them.

The Orioles traded Schilling and released left-hander Joe Price, leaving a couple of middle-relief jobs wide open. No doubt, at least one of the jilted starters will end up in the bullpen, but the club will need a couple of dependable middlemen -- preferably left-handed. Former Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays reliever Paul Kilgus will get an audition. So will Flanagan and Kevin Hickey.

If the possibilities seem infinite, at least there is plenty of time to sort through them. Last year, spring training was cut in half by baseball's labor dispute at a time when the Orioles needed every bit of it. This spring, time will be on their side.

Making their pitch

Here's a quick look at pitchers who will be in camp and where they might fit into the Orioles' pitching schematic:

Jeff Ballard (L): Sore arm and tough luck last year almost made everyone forget his 18-win season in 1989. But Frank Robinson remembers, which is why Ballard will be in the rotation if he's healthy.

Jose Bautista (R): Still on the payroll, but no longer in the club's long-range plans.

Mike Flanagan (L): Roland Hemond continues to wax nostalgic, but that doesn't mean a bullpen role is out of the question.

Kevin Hickey (L): Played beer-league hockey in the off-season. Skating on thinner ice here.

Dave Johnson (R): Can't understand why everybody keeps leaving his name out of the tentative rotation. He'll be there, even if his stuff isn't exactly unforgettable.

Paul Kilgus (L): Formerly of Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays. Could win a middle-relief job if he keeps throwing left-handed.

Mike Linskey (L): Solid prospect, but no room at the inn.

Ben McDonald (R): Has to compete for a job like everybody else. Just doesn't have to win one.

Jose Mesa (R): The most pleasant surprise of 1990. Will get every opportunity to be in the rotation.

Bob Milacki (R): Spent 1990 season saying his shoulder felt fine. Five victories in 24 starts proved otherwise. If he's healthy again, he'll be in the rotation.

Mike Mussina (R): No. 1 draft choice in 1990 is No. 1 prospect in 1991, but he won't start the season in the major leagues.

Chris Myers (L): Promising, but the Orioles can't make any promises this year.

Gregg Olson (R): Can't wait to see his arbitration figures next January.

Jim Palmer (R): A comeback kid at 45? Or who's he kidding?

Arthur Rhodes (L): Hard-throwing prospect will be watched closely by Orioles brass, but will pitch for Rochester this year.

Jeff Robinson (R): Ticketed for the rotation, but could end up in long-relief/spot-starter role.

Roy Smith (R): Tough 1990 season in Minnesota makes him a long shot. Might start the season in Rochester.

Anthony Telford (R): Made a decent impression last year, but numbers work against him in 1990. Reluctantly will go back to Rochester.

Mark Williamson (R): Broken hand apparently has healed. Figures to be main setup man again after combined 18-7 record in 1989-90.

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