Full squad arrives, but pitching Orioles' top concern


SARASOTA, Fla. -- There have been players in camp for the past week, but spring training doesn't begin in earnest until today, when the Orioles open full-squad workouts at Twin Lakes Park.

Most of the position players already are here, but their ranks will swell with the arrival of 1991 MVP Cal Ripken and nine other infielders and outfielders.

There is much work to be done on several fronts between now and the club's exhibition opener against the St. Louis Cardinals on March 6, but manager John Oates remains preoccupied with the reconstruction of the starting rotation -- the club's major weakness in 1991.

Oates has been sorting through his 22-man preseason pitching staff since Friday, and he's ready to see how those pitchers look against live hitting. They'll throw batting practice for the next six days, then work in two intrasquad games before opening the Grapefruit League season.

"We have 10 guys we are going to look at as starters and 12 we are going to look at as relievers," he said. "That's not to say that some of the starters we're looking at won't end up in the bullpen for us. There's also the possibility that somebody we're looking at in the bullpen could end up starting, but that's not as likely."

He isn't ready to narrow things down any more than that. Frank Robinson hadnamed his Opening Day starter by this time last year, but that may not happen until well into the exhibition season.

"If I had a Roger Clemens or a Dave Stewart or a Bob Welch or a Chuck Finley, it would be easy," Oates said, "but since we don't have a marked man, we'll let them compete for it. I have an idea, but I want to have every opportunity to change my mind."

The selection of an Opening Day starter is hardly the most critical decision that the coaching staff will consider during the next five weeks anyway. The order in which the rotation opens the season is secondary to the composition of that rotation, which still is very much in doubt.

The projected rotation includes the club's three best young starters -- Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina -- as well as newcomers Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis, but few teams get through spring training without altering their original pitching blueprint.

The Orioles certainly didn't in 1990 and '91. Both years, McDonald started the season on the disabled list, immediately testing the team's organizational pitching depth. Both times, the team did not pass that test, which explains why the camp is overflowing with candidates this year.

Right-hander Jose Mesa could be next in line, because he's out of minor-league options. Veteran Dennis Rasmussen also will receive strong consideration, because he and rookie Arthur Rhodes are the only left-handed candidates. Rhodes, Antho

ny Telford and Eric Hetzel will get a look, but figure to start the season with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.

Oates has other -- though less pressing -- concerns. He will take a long look at the club's leadoff spot, where rookie Luis Mercedes and Rule V draftee Darrell Sherman will get a chance to push center fielder Mike Devereaux into a run-production role.

Mercedes opened some eyes last spring and spent a few weeks at the major-league level at the end of the 1991 season, but he'll have to prove he can hit major-league pitching and channel his aggressiveness in the right directions to earn a place at the top of the lineup.

Sherman, who reported to camp yesterday, has to make the team or he has to be offered back to the San Diego Padres for half of the $50,000 draft price. But that probably won't enhance his chances of earning a place in the Orioles' crowded outfield. He'll have to sweep the coaching staff off its collective feet to open the season in the lineup.

The Orioles put an end to the competition at third base last week, when Craig Worthington was traded to the Padres, but there could besome infighting at second base. The job is Bill Ripken's to lose, but his struggles at the plate last year left him open to a spring challenge from Juan Bell and non-roster invitee Mark McLemore, 27.

Bell had a chance to prove himself at the position when Ripken spent several weeks on the disabled list last year, but could not establish any credibility there. McLemore once was considered the second baseman of the future by the California Angels, but never reached his potential there. He spent part of the 1991 season with the Houston Astros before signing with the Orioles and turning in a solid half-season at Rochester.

McLemore would have to make an outstanding first impression to stick for Opening Day, but he need only show that he can play to make himself a valuable member of the club's infield depth chart.

Oates and the coaching staff also will have to settle on a backup catcher, which won't be easy if Rick Dempsey, 42, and promising Jeff Tackett play well this spring. But that apparently is what spring training is all about.

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