Orioles' pitching picture starts to come into focus


SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's time for the process of elimination to take over for the Orioles.

With the midway point of the exhibition season behind him, manager Frank Robinson admits he's no closer to resolving the third base situation than he was before spring training started. At this point incumbent Craig Worthington's experience is about the only difference between him and rookie challenger Leo Gomez.

The same, however, cannot be said about the pitching staff -- especially in the competition for what eventually will be five jobs in the starting rotation. Though he hasn't been overwhelming in his four outings, Ben McDonald is a given as No. 1. If the Orioles have to worry about him, they're in deep trouble.

Beyond that, Jeff Ballard has been the most impressive pitcher in camp and his 18-win season two years ago makes him deserving of the second spot at this point. "The way he's thrown the ball has been very encouraging," said Robinson, "but at this point I'm not going to say anybody [other than McDonald] has a spot in the rotation."

Dave Johnson in Robinson's words "is Davey Johnson," which means consistency, nothing spectacular -- and a place in the rotation, even though the manager won't make such a proclamation.

After that it's a guessing game, with Jose Mesa, Bob Milacki and Jeff Robinson seemingly on the bubble -- and Mike Flanagan the most intriguing possibility.

Robinson, the pitcher, did not enhance his status with Robinson, the manager, by giving up nine hits and six runs in yesterday's 9-0 loss to the White Sox. A victim of high winds and low defensive efficiency in his previous three outings, the righthander had his poorest outing of the spring at a time when the decision makers are looking for improvement.

"I'm not going to say I'm concerned," said Frank Robinson, "but the time is coming when I have to decide who is going to pitch. I'm not saying his spot is in jeopardy, but the decision I have to make with Jeff is whether he's in there [the rotation] or behind the fence [in the bullpen].

"You can't pitch when you have to throw fastballs on 2-and-0 or 3-and-1 and that's what happened to him," said the manager.

Robinson, 29, arrived in January from Detroit in the Mickey Tettleton trade. Coming into spring training, Robinson had to create a spot for himself in the rotation. He fell in line behind McDonald, Johnson, Ballard, Milacki and Mesa, who is the other key figure in this scenario.

Three weeks ago Mesa was considered the leading candidate for the No. 2 spot behind McDonald, but he has yet to live up to advance billing. The righthander's start today against the Pirates won't be critical, but he needs a turnaround soon or the Orioles will have to reassess the situation.

"I'm looking at him being one of the three or four [starters] when the season starts," said Robinson. "He's been a little erratic, but he'll get sharper, hopefully. He'll get the full benefit of spring training. This [today's performance] won't put him in jeopardy -- it won't be decided on one performance."

However, despite his high ranking before camp, Mesa's evaluation will be based on what happens during the rest of the exhibition season, which comes down to his next three outings. And if Mesa is going to break camp with the Orioles, he will be no worse than the fourth starter. He has an option left and could be sent to Rochester to open the season, then summoned later.

"I won't use more than three or four starters in the first month," said Robinson. "If he's going to be here he'll have to work on a regular basis. I don't think it would do him or us any good for him to be sitting around."

Milacki's case is similar, though not identical to Mesa's. The biggest difference is that Milacki has had a full, and successful, year in the big leagues -- 1989, when he won 14 games.

"We're looking for both of them to improve over what they have done so far," Robinson said of the two righthanders. "Milacki has had some rough spots, but he's throwing the ball good and he's physically sound."

Robinson wouldn't concede a spot on the staff to Flanagan, but he came as close as he could without making it certain. "It's premature to say he's got a job won," said Robinson. "But if he continues to progress the way he has, he should be able to help us. That's as close as I'm going to come," to saying Flanagan has a job.

Flanagan could fit anywhere from the No. 2 starting job to a role in the bullpen as either a long man or a specialist. "It depends on whether we decide he can help us most as a starter, or whether we decide we want two lefthanders in the bullpen," said Robinson.

Counting righthanders Todd Frohwirth and Roy Smith and lefthander Paul Kilgus -- like Flanagan, they are non-roster invitees -- the Orioles have 15 pitchers competing for 10 jobs. Jose Bautista and John Mitchell, righthanders who spent time with the Orioles last year, cannot be sent to the minors without clearing waivers.

Bautista has pitched effectively in his brief appearances this spring, and is being groomed as a long reliever. Mitchell has struggled, but his record at Rochester last year (5-0, 1.57 earned run average) commands a longer look. Smith is the dark horse candidate among the group trying to survive in the long relief role.

At this point Robinson would like the picture to be more focused, because decision time is only two weeks away. So far Ballard and Flanagan are the only ones who have stepped forward and left no doubt about their qualifications. Robinson, no doubt, would like to see a few more follow their example.

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