SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles bullpen figured to be a major concern for new manager Phil Regan. Too little experience, not much in the way of left-handed pitching.
But the problem is getting worse. Reliever Mark Eichhorn, who appeared in 43 games last year with a 2.15 ERA, will not be able to throw when he arrives in camp today. Eichhorn underwent surgery Feb. 8 to repair a partially torn rotator cuff on his pitching shoulder, and will begin the season on the disabled list.
More bad news for the Orioles: The team may well lose out in its bid for free-agent closer John Franco, who is sounding more and more as if he intends to re-sign with his hometown New York Mets. Both sides have increased their bids in the past 24 hours. The Orioles have gone from $5.2 million for two years to $5.6 million for two years. The Mets have jumped from $4 million for two years to $5 million.
A source close to the negotiations said that Franco now is deciding between taking less money to stay at home or taking more money to play for a contender. "John's got the offers," the source said. "Now, he's in the process of weighing them."
Some within the Orioles organization say the team may increase its bid in an attempt to ensure that Franco jumps to the American League.
That might be a good idea, given the current makeup of the bullpen.
There are right-hander Armando Benitez, a 22-year-old rookie who pitched 10 strong innings last year, and right-hander Alan Mills, 3-3 with a 5.16 ERA last year. They are the only pitchers who will pitch out of the bullpen for sure -- in a season when spring training is going to be short and the importance of strong relief will be heightened.
Regan said the loss of Eichhorn "is a problem. We're going to have to take a very close look at our second-line pitching."
Nearly all the potential solutions from within the organization involve pitchers who were in the minor leagues last year. Suppose, for argument's sake, that Franco signs with the Mets and Benitez is the closer and Mills is the setup man.
Those in support roles could include left-hander Brad Pennington, who is out of options and likely will make the staff; Joe Borowski, who had a 1.91 ERA and 14 saves at Double-A Bowie last year; Russell Brock, a Rule V draftee who went 6-8 for Triple-A Tacoma in '94; Mike Oquist, who compiled a 6.17 ERA in 15 games with the Orioles last year; and Scott Klingenbeck, a talent who has pitched in one game above Double-A.
Left-hander Jamie Moyer could be bumped to the bullpen if the Orioles acquire another pitcher for their rotation, but his stuff is better suited for starting than relieving.
"There's going to be a lot of opportunity" for Orioles minor-leaguers, Regan said. "A lot of times, when one door closes, another one opens."
Eichhorn's surgery is a contributing factor to the Orioles' sudden in terest in veteran reliever Jim Gott, who, at one time this winter, nearly had signed with the Texas Rangers.
Eichhorn, traveling from his home to Florida yesterday, could not be reached for comment, and it's not known when his shoulder trouble began. He received an injection of cortisone Aug. 13, the day after the players strike began.
Team doctor Michael Jacobs performed the surgery Feb. 8, and Eichhorn since has started his rehabilitation. General manager Roland Hemond would not speculate how long it would be before Eichhorn, 34, returns to active duty. He will be examined by Jacobs again on Saturday. But if there were a dictionary written specifically for pitchers, "rotator cuff surgery" would be the three ugliest words. There have been great strides made in the treatment and rehabilitation of this kind of injury, but nevertheless, pitchers with rotator cuff problems often are sidelined for months or years.
"We'll just have to wait and see how he is when he gets here," said Regan, "and see if he's going to be able to help us."