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Having interchangeable relievers isn't a relief


Even before they left spring training, the potential vulnerability of the Orioles' bullpen was well documented. And, after only one game, you already can hear the chorus of "I told you sos."

Not that the bullpen needs to accept sole responsibility for yesterday's 5-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals. There isn't much margin for error when the starting lineup fails to produce even one run.

Had the Orioles been able to get on the scoreboard first, it may have affected the way Phil Regan used his relief pitchers. However, that doesn't disguise the fact that the new manager's real problem in the bullpen centers on the various roles that need to be filled in this age of ultra-specialization.

There are the "long men," whose responsibility it is to bail out ineffective starters. Then come the "setup men," who often are required to face only one hitter. Ultimately, if everything goes right (which it obviously didn't yesterday) we get to the closers, the guys who make most of the available relief money and get more of the credit or blame than they deserve.

Other than Doug Jones, the recently signed free-agent closer, Regan's relievers appear interchangeable. Which should be good, but isn't in this instance.

Left-handers Jamie Moyer and Jesse Orosco are more effective against right-handed hitters. And they're still showing the tape of the longest home run Brad Pennington ever allowed (the blast by Ken Griffey knocked him all the way to Rochester).

Ideally, Regan needs one solid performer in each of the three bullpen roles. Potentially he does, but unfortunately it could be one person -- Alan Mills -- who best fits each job description.

Once it was determined that the Hall of Fame voting on Armando Benitez could be delayed, and before Jones was signed the day before the real training camp began, Mills was the best qualified to fill the role of closer. But, as he has demonstrated in the past, he's also the most dependable long reliever available -- and the combination of his ability and experience could also make him an ideal setup man.

That's the role in which Mills was used yesterday, but he threw only one pitch, allowed a hit, and was gone. Circumstances (no offense and a growing deficit) dictated Regan's moves yesterday and had no bearing on the outcome.

But if Mills is going to be one of those setup guys who faces one hitter at a time, then the Orioles are even more vulnerable in the bullpen than originally thought. Nobody quite understands what has happened to Benitez, who allowed only one run and struck out 14 in 10 innings in three major-league games last year.

But neither has anybody taken into full consideration that despite 106 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings and an 8-4 record, the lanky right-hander had only a 3.14 ERA at Double-A Bowie a year ago. That is not an adequate ERA for a closer, at any level, and Benitez probably would benefit from innings at Triple-A Rochester that he won't get at this level. At least not now.

If it sounds like a perplexing situation, there's good reason. It is.

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