The Orioles' list of potential fifth starters is so weak, manager Johnny Oates is thinking seriously of giving the job to a reliever coming off elbow surgery.
Would you believe Mark Williamson?
Oates had a great idea borne out of desperation last season, when he named Brady Anderson his leadoff hitter. Frankly, Williamson would be less of a risk, even though he hasn't started since 1988.
For one thing, the fifth starter's job is not as important as many believe, especially early in the season. For another, Oates offers a typically reasoned analysis on why Williamson might make a sound choice.
"He never gets the opportunity to get all his pitches ready in the bullpen," Oates says. "Bos [pitching coach Dick Bosman] got him to throw a curveball -- and he's got a good curveball. He's also got a slider. But when he comes in from the bullpen, all he's got is the fastball-palmball.
"Over the years, his stats after he gets out of the first inning -- when all the other guy's runs have scored -- are unbelievable. I started putting two and two together. We talked about this last fall, just as a possibility down the road."
Now, Oates has lost three potential fifth starters -- Bob Milacki, Storm Davis and Craig Lefferts. He's down to two retreads (Jamie Moyer and Steve Searcy), a career minor-leaguer (Anthony Telford) and two prospects he'd prefer to keep at Triple-A (John O'Donoghue and Mike Oquist).
At this point, the Orioles aren't likely to add a pitcher with a large salary, not after watching Davis leave for $900,000 and Lefferts for $1.1 million. Because of days off, Oates will need a fifth starter only twice in April. Why not Williamson?
Just follow Oates' logic.
Williamson has allowed 39 percent of his inherited runners to score in the past five seasons. That stat is often misleading -- it's easier to escape a bases-loaded jam with two out than with none -- but Williamson concedes his percentage "has been way ugly."
Yet, as Oates points out, he becomes more effective after his first inning. According to the Stats 1993 Player Profiles, opponents in the past five years batted .281 on Williamson's first 15 pitches, .236 on his next 15, .229 on the 15 after that.
The average rises to .248 beyond 45 pitches, but that's because Williamson isn't accustomed to throwing that many. His four-pitch repertoire would indeed serve him well as a starter. And his surgically repaired elbow isn't the hindrance that one might suspect.
"If they're worried about my arm strength, starting probably would be easier," Williamson says. "It's once every five days, as opposed to relief pitching four-five days in a row. I didn't pitch in a lot of games at the end of last year, but I got up a lot [to warm up]. My arm feels a lot better now."
Williamson underwent arthroscopic surgery May 12 and missed 121 of the Orioles' 162 games before returning Sept. 4. He posted a 1.15 ERA in the final month, and worked 4 2/3 scoreless innings against Toronto on Sept. 22 -- his longest outing in more than three years.
"We've got to be careful coming off the arm surgery that we don't blow him out in spring training -- we'll handle him with kid gloves," Oates says. "But, by the end of spring training, I want him going five to six innings, if that's the role he's going to be in."
The Orioles are serious about this. General manager Roland Hemond broached the idea with Williamson's agent, Ted Updike, in contract negotiations. As in the past, Williamson's incentives are based on a point system -- two for each start, one for each relief appearance.
Williamson is 1-7 with a 4.46 ERA in 12 lifetime starts, all of which came in his first two seasons (his one win ended the 0-21 streak in '88). "A lot of it is just mental," he says. "I think I can handle it better now." If that's the case, the Orioles can hold off on O'Donoghue, a 6-foot-6 left-hander they compare to Seattle's Dave Fleming.
The club was 69-49 in games started by Mike Mussina, Rick Sutcliffe, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes last season, 20-24 in games started by others. That's not an unusual pattern, and, given the shortage of pitching, even world champion Toronto is searching for a No. 5 starter (Pat Hentgen? David Wells?)
Ideally, the Orioles want to model themselves after Atlanta, a team whose Big Four averaged 33.5 starts last season. That left only 28 other games, and the pitching-rich Braves alternated as their fifth starter Pete Smith, David Nied, Mike Bielecki and Armando Reynoso, who combined to go 12-4.
The Orioles should be so lucky.
For now, they might as well try Williamson.