Birds make room for what pitching future may hold


SEATTLE -- It's too late to have a significant effect this year, but the Orioles have cleared the decks to make roster moves geared to the future.

When manager John Oates revealed yesterday that Jeff Ballard and Jeff Robinson had been dropped from the starting rotation, he likely started a chain reaction that will ultimately be felt throughout the organization.

Dave Johnson was named to fill one of the vacancies in the starting rotation. The other was left open to wide-ranging speculation.

In addition, Oates would not commit beyond three starters for the rest of this week, a strong insinuation that new faces are expected. Roy Smith remains in the rotation to start tonight's game against the Mariners, but isn't certain to pitch Sunday, which would be his next scheduled appearance.

"Roy has pitched in less trouble than the other two [Ballard and Robinson]," said Oates in explaining his decision on the rotation. "I broke it down to innings, not just games. There were times when it seemed like they [Ballard and Robinson] were in trouble every inning. Roy has had a lot more trouble-free innings.

"This isn't something that came about overnight, or because of one game. I've given a lot of thought as to what would be best for the club and the individuals involved," said Oates.

"It's something I've been thinking about for a while and I told Frank [assistant general manager Frank Robinson] on Saturday that this was what I wanted to do. I didn't get a chance to talk to Roland [general manager Roland Hemond] until the next day and he said to go ahead."

Because of Thursday's off-day, Oates needs only four starterimmediately. He will bring Ben McDonald back to face the White Sox Friday, with Bob Milacki, the loser in last night's 11-4 fiasco against the Mariners, pitching the next day.

"Sunday's game could be started by Smith, Ballard, Robinson -or somebody who's not here," said Oates. Asked why he wouldn't say now that Smith would pitch on what would be his regular day, Oates left little doubt there were more decisions, and possibly moves, to be made.

"I've got to know who the five [starters] are going to be," saiOates. "I'm not prepared to go any further than that."

With at least one starter, and possibly two, to be added to throtation, therioles obviously are planning some moves. One clear option, and one that has been avoided for at least two months, is to recall Mike Mussina, last year's No. 1 draft pick, from Rochester. The other is to add a pitcher from another club.

With tomorrow's midnight trading deadline fast approaching, thOrioles would appear to have limited options in that regard. Barring an overwhelming offer, Oates is against any trade that would send Mike Flanagan away from the Orioles a second time.

However, it's possible the Orioles will be willing to juggle their staff by trading one, possibly two pitchers for others in similar situations elsewhere. While nothing is said to be imminent, Oates' refusal to commit to more than three starters at the moment is indication enough that there are at least some possibilities.

The front office has been reluctant to rush Mussina to the bileagues, preferring to give him a full year at Triple A, but their patience may now be exhausted. A move by Mussina also would most likely affect Arthur Rhodes, the top pitching prospect at Double A Hagerstown.

Ironically, both Mussina and Rhodes pitched shutouts last nighagainst farm teams in the Yankees' organization. Mussina blanked Columbus in the International League, while Rhodes shut out Albany in an Eastern League contest. If Mussina is promoted, as appears likely, then Rhodes would be his logical replacement at Rochester -- and is himself a distinct possibility to join the Orioles before the year is over.

Replacing Ballard and Robinson with Johnson is only a stopgap tactic at this stage, a measure of how much the Orioles' starters have struggled this year. Johnson was the club's top winner (13) a year ago, but had been demoted to the bullpen before going on the disabled list more than two months ago and will take an inflated 9.20 earned run average into tomorrow night's game.

With McDonald at 5.73, it means that two of the three announced starters have higher ERAs than Ballard (5.34) or Robinson (5.18).

Neither of the newest additions to the bullpen is especially suited for relief work, which only fuels speculation that the Orioles are prepared to make deals, even if it means merely changing faces in the clubhouse.

It's not the ideal way to lay a foundation, but the Orioles are a long way from being in an ideal situation.

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