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Orioles will have to add a few to make pennant pitch


Rarely does a team play an entire summer with the roster it uses Opening Day. Change is inevitable during the course of a 162-game season, and the Orioles should address their lack of pitching depth before it becomes a major concern.

It's not just that Bob Milacki and Jose Mesa are struggling with ERAs above 5.00. The staff remains severely imbalanced and dangerously thin, and the front office would be foolish to be satisfied with 100 games still to play.

Time to face reality.

Time to make a trade.

Milacki or Mesa can be replaced with a modest shuffling -- Jim Poole to the bullpen, Storm Davis to the rotation -- but that's a quick-fix solution, not one that guarantees improvement.

This team needs more pitching. General manager Roland Hemond points out that the current staff is enabling the Orioles to keep pace with Toronto. But year after year, the teams that win divisions are the ones that seek higher plateaus.

Take 1991.

Toronto traded for Tom Candiotti, Atlanta for Alejandro Pena, Pittsburgh for Steve Buechele. All three were potential free agents. All three helped put their clubs over the top.

World champion Minnesota kept its roster intact, but only after signing free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis the previous winter, and failing to trade for the Orioles' Dwight Evans in July.

Hemond, of course, recognizes the importance of last-minute tinkering: He acquired Keith Moreland in 1989. Never mind that the deal proved a bust, it was the thought that counted. Hemond shouldn't hesitate to take another shot.

If anything, he seems to be growing bolder at the urging of manager Johnny Oates. Not only did he sign Rick Sutcliffe, he later backed Oates in keeping Jeff Tackett and Mark McLemore over the more politically correct Rick Dempsey and Juan Bell.

Now, he must turn to the pitching.

The belief here is that the season still hinges on the performance of the Big Three -- Sutcliffe, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina. But the Orioles still need a lefthander in the rotation, and another in the bullpen to alternate with Mike Flanagan.

Hemond keeps banking on the return of Poole, who is now on a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Rochester. But after three months, the club is still waiting, and Flanagan is still struggling. It should never have gotten to this point.

Flanagan needs regular work, but Oates can't give it to him, for fear of wasting the only lefthander on his staff. Hemond said Poole is "starting to show signs," but after such a lengthy layoff, who knows if he'll be effective when he returns?

Blame it all on Dennis Rasmussen, who could have filled the void, but got himself released. Of course, the prospects of improving the rotation aren't much better. Trying Davis or Alan Mills would further weaken a slumping bullpen that already is without the injured Mark Williamson.

Arthur Rhodes? Forget it. Rhodes, 22, is one of the game's top lefthanded prospects, but he still doesn't know how to win. He's 4-5 this season at Rochester, 25-28 for his career. Virtually everyone in the organization agrees he needs more polish.

Which returns us to Mesa and Milacki.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to defend Mesa, who has won only four of his past 26 starts. He had no excuses Sunday, pitching on four days rest, taking a 4-1 lead into the fifth inning. True, he might turn out to be another Dennis Martinez. But enough is enough.

Milacki is another mystery. He's losing velocity, and is nowhere near the pitcher he was in 1989. It's possible he, too, will straighten out. But this is a pitcher who has allowed eight homers in his last six starts. The Orioles can't wait much longer.

In a perfect world, Hemond would add a Richie Lewis or a Mike Oquist from Rochester, and his problems would be solved. But pitchers who lack major-league experience are not legitimate alternatives for a team in a pennant race.

The logical solution -- the only solution -- is a trade. With expansion coming, it's the perfect time. The Orioles can protect only 15 players in November. Better to get something for a Joe Orsulak or David Segui now than nothing later.

"You could outsmart yourself in that regard," Hemond said, playing devil's advocate. "You've got to be careful you don't get carried away and try to mastermind something that isn't there."

Fair enough, Roland.

Mastermind something that is.

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