All-points bulletins being issued for competent young relievers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is supposed to be the era of the reliever. Starting pitchers go fewer innings, get fewer wins, and more pitchers are being trained to throw in relief.

But has anybody noticed how few good young closers are around? Most of the elite relievers are veterans well past the midpoint of their careers.

John Franco of the New York Mets is 34 years old, for example. Others are Rick Aguilera of Minnesota (33), Kansas City's Jeff Montgomery (33), Doug Jones of the Orioles (37), Florida's Bryan Harvey (32), Todd Worrell of Los Angeles (35), St. Louis' Tom Henke (37), the Cubs' Randy Myers (32) and California's Lee Smith (37).

Just last week, two of the game's top relievers of all time -- Rich Gossage (43) and Jeff Reardon (39) -- stepped down, taking their combined 38 seasons and 677 saves into retirement.

There are exceptions to the trend -- John Wetteland of the New York Yankees (28) and San Diego's Trevor Hoffman, in only his third year in the majors -- but there's such a need for capable closers that even contending teams have scrambled for front-line, late-inning relief.

The Orioles, deciding that rookie Armando Benitez wasn't ready, signed Jones. The Yankees, feeling uneasy about leaving the bullpen in the hands of Steve Howe, traded for Wetteland. Boston wanted to sign Wetteland in the off-season and was forced to make do with Ken Ryan.

Atlanta has tried and failed to establish a closer in the last few years, from Steve Bedrosian to Mike Stanton to Mark Wohlers to Greg McMichael. Now it's trying Brad Clontz, who has exactly zero days of big-league experience. Philadelphia is hoping veteran Norm Charlton can rebound from elbow problems.

The hottest trade commodities during the season will be relievers. Cleveland is desperate for late-inning help, and is trying to trade for Aguilera. If the Indians can't get him, they'd turn their sights to Montgomery.

Colorado may be looking for a closer before the year is over (Myers?). If Benitez is a bust, don't be surprised if the Orioles jump into the bidding for Aguilera, Montgomery, Harvey or Myers to augment the bullpen, which, at the moment, figures to be the club's most vulnerable part.

Relief is needed all over baseball.

An expensive hug

Before the Mets played the Dodgers last week, outfielder Brett Butler was warned by teammate Bobby Bonilla that if Butler hugged his hug-happy former manager, Tom Lasorda, he would be fined $500 by New York's kangaroo court. Butler walked up to Lasorda, keeping his distance, and shook hands. "Tommy, you know I love you," Butler told Lasorda, "but I can't hug you. You understand, don't you?"

Lasorda nodded, then found Bonilla, feinted a handshake and threw his arms around him. Bonilla owes the $500. "I got him," Lasorda said. "I got him good." . . .

San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds homered four times in his first 14 at-bats this spring. "Michael Jordan can stay out a year and score 55 points," said Giants manager Dusty Baker. "Barry Bonds can stay out eight months and hit one 500 feet." . . .

Jose Canseco played a round of golf last week and shot 112. "I've only [played] about 10 times in my life," he said. "If I hit it right, I can drive it about 315 yards or so. I had one bad hole -- I got a 15 on it."

If Bullinger is the ace . . .

The Cubs' Opening Day starter will be Jim Bullinger. This is a bad team, again. . . .

Gregg Olson is said to be making progress in his rehabilitation work with Cleveland, but he may not be ready until the middle of the summer. . . .

Of all the improvements made to the Orioles this off-season, one that shouldn't be overlooked is the upgrading of the bench. Kevin Bass, Matt Nokes, Jeff Manto (assuming he makes the team), Manny Alexander and Sherman Obando each do at least one thing very well, and there's a nice balance of left- and right-handed hitters.

If Jack Voigt sticks, he gives manager Phil Regan versatility. And it should not be forgotten that newcomers Bass and Andy Van Slyke are regarded as two of the ultimate class people in the game. Van Slyke said he could feel right away that there's a nice mix of talent and personality on the club.

Wakefield in trouble

Remember Tim Wakefield, the Pirates knuckleballer who almost single-handedly beat Atlanta in the 1992 playoffs? He was released after giving up eight runs in his first 2 2/3 innings this spring. . . .

Texas thought about giving Benji Gil another shot at being its shortstop, but the youngster is struggling again. . . .

Chicago White Sox left-hander Wilson Alvarez has a sore shoulder and will be eased into action by manager Gene Lamont. . . .

Cleveland starter Charles Nagy is trying to gain weight, eating an extra 1,000 calories per day to make up for 15 pounds lost since the strike.

Say what?

Item: Red Sox owner John Harrington says the negotiations between the players and the owners may resume within 30 days.

Comment: Yeah, and the peace talks between North Korea and South Korea are supposed to start within 29 days.

Item: Part of Darryl Strawberry's plea-bargaining reportedly involves giving the IRS incriminating information about ex-teammates Dwight Gooden and Howard Johnson.

Comment: The day after his sentencing, Strawberry might as well retire, because nobody will want him anymore.

Item: Umpires offer to return to work so long as negotiations continue.

Comment: Good call. They have absolutely no negotiating leverage.

Item: David Cone says players are in a tough spot during the umpires lockout, because fans would get angry if they honored the pickets.

Comment: Hypocrisy, as usual. Where was the concern for the fans at the time the '94 World Series was in jeopardy? And either the players association is a union or it isn't; the players leaned heavily on minor-leaguers to honor their strike and they've all been given lists of the replacement players, presumably so they can ostracize them, and yet they play despite the umpires lockout? Please.

Alou speaks up

Expos manager Felipe Alou was rather annoyed when he heard that the players association had issued a list of replacement players -- a blacklist, in actuality -- to its members. "I want them to put my name on the list," he said, "and because my last name starts with A, I want to be right at the top. I was part of replacement baseball and it doesn't bother me.

"But is the players association going to make up a list of guys who've been on drugs or guys caught with prostitutes? I wouldn't want my name on those lists. Which list are they going to put Darryl Strawberry's name on?" . . .

Financial World magazine determined that the value of the Braves' franchise jumped 25 percent to $120 million in 1994, the year of the strike. Atlanta president Stan Kasten was skeptical. "I'm not familiar with the methodology," he said. "For example, I'm not sure if they threw their darts with their left hand or their right."

An example of how ridiculous Financial World's figures can be occurred in 1993 when it listed the Padres' payroll at $11 million and claimed that the team earned a profit. Unfortunately, the magazine processed the season-ending payroll, rather than the actual dollars spent throughout the year on salary, which was actually about $20 million.

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