ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Manager Johnny Oates sai yesterday it won't be necessary for the Orioles to carry an extra pitcher for Fernando Valenzuela to make the team.
"Yes, he can," Oates replied when asked if Valenzuela could fit into a 10-man staff. The left-hander had just extended his scoreless-innings streak to 12 with two more against the Cincinnati Reds in the Orioles' 4-2 win yesterday.
Oates, who had been noncommittal after three previous appearances, left no doubt that Valenzuela has made a favorable impression. He also said it wasn't necessary for
Valenzuela to adapt to a relief role early in the season.
"What I'm mostly interested in is a guy who can start 28 games for me," said Oates. "If I have to pick between a starter and a reliever, I'm going to take the starter because he's going to give me more innings this year."
Oates has Valenzuela scheduled to pitch up to four innings on two days of rest Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals. It is designed as a test to see how quickly Valenzuela's arm bounces back, but Oates said he won't necessarily be influenced by a negative outing.
What started as a novel experiment, with Valenzuela invited to camp and signed to a Triple-A Rochester contract, has become the hottest story in the Orioles' camp. Oates was asked if a fluke could last for 12 innings, even in spring training.
"I'll bet you can count on one hand the number of guys who have pitched that many innings [this spring] without giving up a run," said Oates. Actually, Mark Williamson is the only one close, with one run in 12 innings.
The only American League pitcher with more consecutive scoreless innings than Valenzuela is Seattle rookie left-hander John Cummings, who hasn't yielded a run in 14 2/3 innings.
"It [bringing Valenzuela to camp] has not been a waste of time," said Oates. "He's pitched well enough to show he can get big-league hitters out."
If the Orioles keep Valenzuela, it would trigger a series of moves involving at least one trade and possibly the optioning of someone else on the roster. Anthony Telford is out of options, so the right-hander almost certainly would have to be traded or placed on waivers.
That still would leave Valenzuela, Mark Williamson and Brad Pennington to vie for the two remaining spots. Oates has all but ruled out carrying 11 pitchers to start the season, so either Williamson would have to be traded or Pennington optioned before Valenzuela finds a home in Baltimore.
"Bos [pitching coach Dick Bosman] and I have talked it over, and we'd be much better off with somebody who could pinch-run rather than a seventh guy in the bullpen," said Oates. "Ideally, if you could choose between two guys, you'd take the reliever for April and then add the starter later."
Oates would not say whether the Orioles might try to persuade Valenzuela to go to Rochester for a month before a final decision is made. And even though he's signed to a Rochester contract, Valenzuela has not said whether he would accept such an assignment.
If the Orioles think Valenzuela can help them, the chances are they won't risk asking him to go to the minors. He could refuse and take his chances with another team.
Valenzuela's performance yesterday was almost identical to the previous three. He gave up a leadoff walk, then retired five straight hitters, inducing his fourth double-play ground ball of the spring.
"It was about the same," said Valenzuela. "I think my screwball was a little better than the last two times. Not good, good . . . but good."
Most observers tended to agree with him. Deacon Jones, now an advance scout for the Orioles who was a hitting coach with the Houston Astros and San Diego Padres during "Fernandomania," saw Valenzuela yesterday for the first time this spring.
"Obviously his velocity isn't the same," said Jones, "but based on what I saw for two innings, I'd say he has enough stuff to get hitters out. I was impressed with the way he came inside to right-handed hitters."
That's something Valenzuela couldn't do two years ago, when he was released by the Dodgers and the Angels. "The thing with Fernando," said Jones, "is that he will throw any pitch, any place, any time -- at any speed."
That variety has served Valenzuela well in the four times he's pitched this spring. It's gotten to the point where Oates realizes he will have to make a decision.
"When he came in, I didn't make any predetermination," said Oates, "and I'm glad I didn't. But I'm a human being and I remember what I saw [when Valenzuela got hammered by the Orioles in his last spring training game with the Dodgers in March 1991].
"If you had put a gun to my head and said, 'Johnny, you've got to pick which one you're most likely to see, the Fernando in his prime or the one you saw two years ago,' I'm sure I would've said the one I last saw," said Oates.
Now, he says he no longer has reason to feel that way, and Valenzuela, 32, has forced his way into the picture. If he makes the team, it will be at the expense of a younger pitcher, a prospect that doesn't excite the Orioles.
But if Oates feels Valenzuela is best suited for the short haul, then his tryout is going to extend into the regular season.