SARASOTA, Fla. -- Al Jackson says the Orioles have more pitching depth than they have had since he became pitching coach three years ago -- but the starting rotation is likely to revolve around one man.
That will be especially true during the abbreviated month of April, when Ben McDonald almost certainly will start five times. Without disrupting his regular schedule of pitching every fifth day, manager Frank Robinson could use the 6-foot-7 righthander three times in the first eight games. McDonald could make his sixth start as early as the 21st game of the season unless he suffers an injury or lapses into a period of ineffectiveness.
Robinson is on record as saying he is not geared to a certain number of starters by the time the Orioles leave spring training. has said only that he will use the most effective pitchers as often as possible during the early weeks, when off days and possible postponements annually play havoc with major-league pitching staffs.
"I'm not saying it's likely he'll pitch three of the first eight," Robinson said, "but it is possible." Pushing McDonald back one day would enable him to make two of his first three starts at home.
There could be a bonus for the Orioles if McDonald does start three of the first eight games. That schedule would allow him to appear in five of the first six series the Orioles will play -- including two against division rival Milwaukee. Holding him back one day would cause him to miss the Brewers both times. It may be too early to look that far ahead, but it won't be overlooked and could figure in Robinson's decision.
Jackson, who places McDonald in a special category, says with the early irregularities in the schedule, it makes sense to use your top people as often as possible. "This is the best situation we've had since I've been here," Jackson said.
"It's no longer a question of trying to find a fourth or fifth starter -- just trying to figure out who they will be. We have enough people who have proven they can get into the seventh inning or later."
But Jackson doesn't necessarily believe a team benefits from a five-man rotation at the start of the season. "I think we're deep enough now that we don't have to worry about being overmatched on a given day by a particular team, or pitcher," said Jackson. "We're in a position now where I don't think we have to juggle the rotation, move somebody up or back, because of a certain team.
"But, without running down anybody, if you have a choice between starting your No. 5 or your No. 1 pitcher, who is it going to be? Looking at the schedule, we can use Ben three times in the first eight games and I don't see anything wrong with that -- as long as he's getting the normal four days in between starts."
It's way too early to list the starting rotation, but Jackson has a quintet in his mind, barring injury or a sensational spring performance by one or more of the young (or old) prospects in camp.
In the past Jackson has had trouble getting past two fingers when trying to list the names of his starters. Now he has no trouble letting the names roll off his tongue. There are as many as 13 candidates, but Jackson admits the number can be cut almost in half.
"When you project, you get down to about seven," said Jackson, who won't rank surprise candidates until somebody surprises him. "Big Ben and Friends" is still the best description of the projected rotation, because so many pitchers are grouped together.
"I think we'll gain the respect of everybody in the league," said Jackson, not backing off his contention that the pitching staff will be dramatically improved.
Jackson bases his prediction on the belief that Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki can both be as effective as they were in 1989, that Jose Mesa was not a flash in the pan last September and that Dave Johnson will continue to be himself.
"Mesa did some things last September that proved to me you've got to find a spot for that kind of arm if he's healthy," said Jackson. "What more does he need? It's just a matter of time with somebody like that."
Jackson does not share the common uncertainty about Ballard and Milacki. "They were absent all year [in 1990] and that hurt us a great deal, there's no doubt about it," said Jackson. "You go into the season and you figure maybe they won't win 32 games [as they did in 1989], but you say 25 anyhow.
"I don't care how good your organization is, how strong you think you are, I don't think anybody is strong enough to bring in two guys who can win 25 games. Both of those guys were hurt last year, and they were never themselves.
"I think Ballard will come back and have a good year because in 1989 he learned two important things," said Jackson. "He learned how to pitch, and he learned how to win. If he hadn't done both of those things, then maybe I wouldn't feel as strongly as I do.
"Jeff also showed he could finish a game, and so did Milacki. You go back to that stretch we had late in 1989 and those two guys won us a lot of games."
Jackson puts Johnson in a special category. "I love him," said the pitching coach. "There always seems to be one like him on every club. People are always looking to replace them, but they have the ability to keep guys from doing it.
"Plus I think Davey has learned a little bit about what it takes to win in the big leagues now that he's been here a little while."
Jackson doesn't concede that it's a done deal, but says those five fit into his rotation right now. "It's just a matter of whether somebody can beat them out," he said.
In proper pecking order he cites newly acquired Jeff Robinson, forgotten man John Mitchell, last year's No. 1 draft pick Mike Mussina, Anthony Telford, veterans Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer, along with long-shot rookie prospects Mike Linskey and Arthur Rhodes.
"Now we have people who can step in if we need them," said Jackson, "and that's a good feeling. When we had to do that before, we were just hoping."
But no matter how long the list, or how fast it grows, they all fall into line behind McDonald.