Pair of aces in hold? Rhodes, Mussina are flashy dealers


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Forget that this was the first full squad workout of the spring. Forget that it was only batting practice. Forget that the two principals involved might be in the minor leagues at the start of the season.

For a few minutes here yesterday an important part of the Orioles' not-too-distant pitching future was on display. That's the good news. The real good news is that Ben McDonald was off doing stretching exercises somewhere, and maybe thinking about that alligator farm he'd like to develop.

Pitching simultaneously on fields side by side, Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes put on a show so good that Frank Robinson had to wave the caution flag.

"Don't be jumping to conclusions with what you see here right now," said Robinson, the Orioles' manager. "These guys [the hitters] aren't swinging in anger yet."

He was right. Self-defense would be a better description.

But Robinson was smiling while trying to contain the enthusiasm around him. Mussina and Rhodes aren't on the big-league roster, but they aren't in camp merely to benefit from the meal money.

They are here for the exposure, and to make an impression.

How good are Mussina, a righthander who was the Orioles' No. 1 draft pick last June, and Rhodes, a 21-year-old lefthander who was the third selection in 1988?

"He [Mussina] has the best arm in camp," said Jeff McKnight, who spent most of last year at Rochester, where he played with both Mussina and McDonald.

Rhodes was good enough to be regarded as possibly the best lefthanded pitching prospect in the minor leagues last year. He is probably known best in Baltimore as the player who almost killed the trade for Glenn Davis last month.

The Houston Astros initially asked for Rhodes to be included in the package for Davis, and when the Orioles balked the deal almost died. Nobody will admit what would have happened had the Astros insisted that Rhodes be included. Suffice it to say the Orioles are happy the Astros needed pitchers they felt could step into the big leagues immediately and backed off their initial demand for Rhodes.

"He is young, he is talented -- and he is undeveloped," said Tom Brown, one of the organization's minor-league pitching coaches. But Arthur is the kind of kid who can come in a hurry."

Brown is the only one in the organization who worked with both Mussina and Rhodes last year. As enthusiastic as he is about the potential of Rhodes, he is unreserved in his appraisal of Mussina.

"He can pitch at whatever level they put him," said Brown, not restricting the choice to the minor leagues.

Of the two, Mussina, 22, is considered the most advanced, because of the 13-month difference in their ages and the fact he pitched three years at Stanford University.

"He's going to open some eyes in this camp," said Greg Biagini, manager of the Triple A team at Rochester. "I saw enough when I had him -- and he was tired by then."

After a full college season, Mussina pitched seven games at Double A Hagerstown (3-0, 1.49 earned run average), before starting two games (0-0, 1.35 ERA) at Rochester. "He has four quality pitches he can throw for strikes -- and he'll throw them at any time in the count," said Biagini. "He throws two different fastballs, a knuckle-curve he gets over the plate consistently, and a changeup."

And the changeup is not a pitch to dismiss lightly. When it was suggested to McKnight, who hit against Mussina yesterday, that he just ask for changeups, he replied: "That's even better, just let him keep throwing fastballs."

With the competition for jobs in the Orioles' rotation so wide open, Mussina isn't out of the picture, despite only 55 2/3 innings in the minor leagues. "Based on what I saw last year, I don't think you can count him out," said Dick Bosman, the Rochester pitching coach.

It could be that Mussina and Rhodes will have to wait their turns. Robinson has people like Jeff Ballard, Bob Milacki, Jeff Robinson, John Mitchell, Jose Mesa, Jose Bautista, Anthony Telford and Mike Linskey who are under consideration.

Then there are a couple of old-timers, Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer, checking out the youth movement.

There is almost no doubt Rhodes will open the season in Rochester. Biagini, contemplating his starting rotation, drools at the prospect of Mussina being with him at least to start the season.

But Biagini also knows he could come up empty. Those kids throwing on the back fields at Twin Lakes Park yesterday weren't just getting a workout.

Robinson will wait until the hitters start swinging in anger. When they do, they'll tell him a lot more about Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes.

It's a right-left combination, or vice-versa, that isn't going to depart this camp without making a statement.

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