SEATTLE -- The Baltimore Orioles officially began a full-scale rebuilding project yesterday, with a flurry of roster moves that left the pitching staff dramatically altered.
Jeff Ballard and Jeff Robinson, who were removed from the starting rotation on Monday, were removed from the 25-man major-league roster along with reliever Paul Kilgus to make room for three minor-league pitchers.
Call it the Tuesday Morning Massacre. Ballard and Robinson were optioned to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. Kilgus was designated for assignment and placed on release waivers. Mike Mussina, Jim Poole and Stacy Jones were recalled to replace them.
Mussina, 22, the team's 1990 first-round draft choice, is scheduled to make his first major-league start on Sunday against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. He'll join the club Friday in Chicago. Poole and Jones arrived in Seattle yesterday and were in the bullpen for the second game of the series against the Mariners at the Kingdome.
Manager John Oates had been saying for weeks that the club could not afford to keep falling behind in the early innings -- a reference to the 31 times this year that the Orioles have trailed by three runs or more by the fourth inning -- but the pitching problems were so widespread that it was difficult to single out anyone to take the blame.
Club president Larry Lucchino may have taken care of that on Monday night, when he could no longer hide his frustration after watching Ballard give up a pair of two-run doubles to turn a tie game into an 11-4 loss to the Mariners.
Lucchino, who was watching the game from the press box at the time, was visibly upset. The moves were announced about 12 hours later.
"I think it was fairly evident that the time for these moves was now," Lucchino said. "We've been talking about these things for a while. The time for some changes was clearly now."
Club officials won't rule out another move before tonight's trading deadline, but they insist that the team is not giving up on 1991, even though they concede that there is virtually no chance of climbing back through the standings to challenge for the American League East title.
"Somebody suggested to me that this was a sign that we are throwing in the towel," Lucchino said. "It's exactly the opposite. We think this is going to benefit us in August and September, as well as over the long term. We honestly believe that."
The point would be hard to argue, since things cannot get much worse for the Orioles than they already are. The club has lost 11 of its past 14 games. The only thing holding it up in the AL East are the Cleveland Indians.
"We're just trying to make the ballclub better," Oates said. "We weren't going anywhere, so we just sat down and said, 'How can we make us better?' We aren't pointing to those three pitchers and saying it's their fault. We're all responsible, but we have to do what we can to move forward."
Ballard, 27, who won 18 games during the Orioles' surprising 1989 season, was 6-11 with a 5.34 ERA this year. He lasted two-thirds of an inning in his last start -- Saturday's 9-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics. Robinson, 29, was 4-9 with a 5.18 ERA and had given up 16 earned runs in his last 16 innings. Kilgus, 29, who followed Ballard to the mound Monday night and also was hit hard, was 0-2 with a 5.08 ERA in 38 appearances.
The three of them returned to Baltimore yesterday. Robinson and Ballard are expected to report to the Red Wings, but both complained bitterly about the way they were treated by the team.
"It's all the same to me," Robinson said. "Rochester or Baltimore, they're both Triple-A as far as the way players are treated."
Ballard was the Opening Day starter and winningest pitcher in the rotation, but he did not defend his performance so much as wonder how he was chosen for reassignment.
"They've got a lot of problems on this team," he said, "a lot of problems. We just happen to be the guys paying the price."
The rotation includes only two pitchers who are averaging less than five earned runs, but Ballard and Robinson were the struggling starters of the moment. The surprising thing was the way the club moved them to the bullpen one day and the minor leagues the next. That leaves room to surmise that the impetus for each set of moves came from a different direction.
The team appears to be giving up on Ballard, whose 18-8 season in 1989 was followed by a pair of elbow operations. He came back to win one of 11 decisions as a starter last year and is a combined 8-22 over the past two seasons.
"I can't get any lower than this," Ballard said, "going to Triple-A, knowing you've done as well as anybody else here, but you have to pay the price."
Robinson had been reluctant to make excuses for his inconsistent performance, but he said yesterday that he received two cortisone shots recently to relieve inflammation in his groin and took a pair of cortisone shots earlier in the season so he could pitch on a sore ankle.
"I did that just so I could go out and pitch," he said, "and this is what happens."
Though Robinson said Monday that his removal from the rotation might have been timed to prevent him from collecting a $25,000 incentive bonus for his 20th start, it seems unlikely that the club would make a move based on a relatively small amount of money. The team has much more than money invested in the veteran right-hander. It traded catcher Mickey Tettleton to the Detroit Tigers to get him, so it would be in the team's best interest to get something out of him.
"I think that he [Robinson] had an emotional reaction to what happened," Lucchino said, "and we had an emotional reaction to the way he pitched. But I wish him the best of luck in Rochester."
Oates said Monday that Robinson has one of the best arms in the organization, but he needs to go somewhere and concentrate on throwing the ball in the strike zone.
"I have no hard feeling toward Johnny," Robinson said, "but I told him yesterday I'd be willing to bet my contract for the next three years that this team is not going to be a contending team unless they make drastic changes . . . and I don't just mean the players."
The club did make some drastic changes, and Robinson was right in the middle of them, so he asked the team to try to trade him.
"They said they'd do everything they can to trade me," he said, "because they realize that I don't want to come back here."
Jones, 24, was the club's fourth pick in the 1988 draft. Poole, 25, a left-hander, was claimed off waivers May 31 when the Texas Rangers tried to send him back to Class AAA Oklahoma City.