Fernando too good for Orioles' good


CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Now what? The Orioles asked for this predicament, and they got it. Once you give a man an invitation, you can't accuse him of crashing the party.

"This makes it interesting," pitching coach Dick Bosman said of Fernando Valenzuela's sudden appearance in the Orioles' plans.

Too interesting, if it compromises their roster.

Every spring, you hear the refrain, "We'll take the best team north," but it's never that simple. Valenzuela has put the Orioles in a fine mess. The question is, how do they get out?

The easiest way is to carry 11 pitchers and trade Anthony Telford. But that would leave manager Johnny Oates with one fewer bench player -- a solution that is unnecessary and unfair to Jack Voigt, who deserves to make the club.

Oates doesn't need 11 pitchers to start the season. But unless the Orioles trade Mark Williamson or demote Brad Pennington -- two unlikely options -- Valenzuela would force them to create an extra spot.

It would all be worthwhile, if Valenzuela turned out to be a quality fifth starter. The problem is, his 10 scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play are about as meaningful as the NIT.

Yes, he again was effective yesterday, allowing Philadelphia two singles in five innings, the first a sharp bouncer up the middle by pitcher Terry Mulholland, the second an infield hit by Dave Hollins.

He walked only one, recorded 11 of his 15 outs on ground balls, averaged only 11 pitches an inning. Still, who could judge? The wind moved his ball so much, the Phillies' Len Dykstra said, "All he had to do was throw the ball over the plate."

Bosman said the only way the Orioles can determine if Valenzuela is for real is "to keep sending him out there." But the only true gauge is the regular season, and the way Valenzuela is pitching, the club will have little choice but to give him a chance.

For fringe players such as Telford and Voigt, the implications are enormous. Telford is out of minor-league options, and can only make the team as an 11th pitcher. Voigt can give the club extra versatility off the bench, but the addition of Valenzuela would eliminate his spot.

The outfield play of Mark McLemore this spring might negate that loss -- "I would have no problem starting him in right field," Oates said. "He's as good in the outfield as he is at second base." But whom would you rather have in April, an extra reserve on the bench or an extra pitcher in the bullpen?

If the Orioles carry 10 pitchers, they can keep not only Voigt, but also power prospect Sherman Obando, whom they'd be crazy to send back to the New York Yankees. Forget about Luis Mercedes. The Orioles are so down on him, a trade seems imminent.

Telford might be traded too, if only to ease the congestion. Oates said yesterday that he does not believe Telford would clear waivers if the Orioles tried to send him to the minors. The idea of a trade would be to get something in return.

It would be no great loss -- Telford, 27, is a career minor-leaguer with an 85-mph fastball and average breaking stuff. Then again, he might come in handy if one of the top four starters gets injured. And if Valenzuela turns out to be a bust.

His success this spring is almost predictable, for he pitched most of the winter in Mexico, and figured to be sharp. But if he makes the team, Oates will ask him to do something he has never done in his career -- be a spot starter.

Oates plans to keep his top four starters on regular schedules. As the swingman, Valenzuela would start only twice in April. He'd pitch out of the bullpen the rest of the time, and no one knows how his arm would respond to irregular work.

So much is a mystery with this comeback, but the Orioles eagerly assumed the risk. Without Valenzuela, they'd be committing to Williamson as their fifth starter, and making a difficult but clear-cut decision on Telford. Now, they're in a box.

Maybe Valenzuela can inspire another wave of Fernandomania. Maybe his comeback will prove the kind of heart-warming saga the game needs. More likely, the Orioles will discover too late what they won't discover in Florida: That his time is gone.

Every other club passed on Valenzuela, but Orioles general manager Roland Hemond loves spring gambles. He didn't need Valenzuela to round out his pitching staff. He certainly didn't need him to sell tickets. But he gave him an invitation, and now, it will be difficult to show his famous guest the door.

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