O's have pitching woes, but rivals are no better off

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is all you need to know about the state of the pitching among American League contenders: On Thursday night, in the midst of a pennant race, the Orioles, New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners started Jimmy Haynes, Wally Whitehurst and Bob Wells, respectively.

Pretty, it ain't. And it's not going to get any better.

Yes, the Orioles needed Denny Neagle more than they need Todd Zeile or Pete Incaviglia, but they simply didn't have the sort of prospects required to cut a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Orioles could offer Haynes, Jeffrey Hammonds and Manny Alexander, but there are major questions marks about each. The Braves could offer Jason Schmidt, one of the best pitching prospects in the game.

Orioles executives had a hard time getting Pittsburgh GM Cam Bonifay to call them back last Monday and Tuesday, and that's probably because Bonifay figured he wasn't interested in what they had to say.

There weren't many viable alternatives to Neagle, either. They could've traded for veteran Tim Belcher, but for this one-month rental -- five or six starts -- the Kansas City Royals wanted Hammonds.

So the Orioles plunge into September with a thin rotation a little weary from working on three days' rest, and a bullpen built with a lot of parts, all of them capable of breaking down. Archie Corbin's been good, Armando Benitez has been excellent, but will they last? Mike Milchin is making big pitches; can he do so in September?

But to write off the Orioles because of their potential pitching problems would be to write off every AL contender, for every team -- every team -- needs more pitching.

The Yankees acquired left-hander Graeme Lloyd from Milwaukee and it's taken them a week to figure out what most other teams already had figured out: He can't be relied on in a close game. And on top of that, he's hurt. Dwight Gooden is fading, perhaps wearing down from his first full season after more than two years off. Kenny Rogers has been inconsistent and last week caught the full wrath of owner George Steinbrenner.

"The mystery to me is this guy Rogers," said Steinbrenner. "I'm not inside his head, so I don't understand what's been going on with him. But he has not been what I figured he'd be for us when we signed him."

Chicago's bullpen is exhausted, although helped somewhat by the underrated addition of Tony Castillo from Toronto. Cleveland's starting rotation is a mess, with the Indians trying to figure out exactly when and if Dennis Martinez will pitch again.

Seattle's primary starters are Jamie Moyer and Terry Mulholland, two lefties plucked from other teams and not exactly prototypical September aces. Texas has good starting pitching, and for that Johnny Oates gives thanks, because the Rangers' bullpen is bad; closer Mike Henneman is getting by with presence, more than anything else.

Boston doesn't have much of a bullpen, but it does have two of the hottest starters in the league, Roger Clemens and Tim Wakefield, and closer Heathcliff Slocumb has stabilized (for now).

Everybody wants to be like the Atlanta Braves and get four strong starting pitchers. Problem is, no one else is like the Braves and no one else can be like the Braves, who have the deep farm system to make trades like they made for Neagle. (There have been three so-called fire sales in the last four years, and Atlanta has landed the best player from each -- Fred McGriff from San Diego in 1993, Marquis Grissom from Montreal in 1995, and Neagle from the Pirates).

Incidentally, the Indians were livid over how the Pirates' Bonifay conducted the Neagle trade talks. Cleveland GM John Hart offered outfielder Brian Giles and pitchers Danny Graves and Julian Tavarez, and when that wasn't good enough, Hart told Bonifay he'd deal any two players who weren't on the Indians' 40-man roster. But Neagle went to the Braves, and the Indians are convinced Bonifay wanted to make a deal with Atlanta because he has old friends in that organization.

The Orioles can't worry about matching the depth of Atlanta. They need only worry about trying to keep up with the other AL contenders and, with their thin pitching staff, they're as good as anybody else.

Mussina rest-minded

Scott Erickson and David Wells like the four-man rotation. They have incentive clauses in their contracts based on innings and starts. Mike Mussina doesn't like the four-man rotation. He doesn't have an incentive clause based on innings or starts. But in fairness, Mussina's original objection to manager Davey Johnson's plan was concern over his own physical adjustment to pitching on three days' rest rather than four.

Leyland on way out?

Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland has been through his share of rebuilding programs and he wants to compete for a title again. He likely will leave the Pirates after this season, and be offered the job of Florida Marlins manager.

"No question there's a lot of chaos out there," said Leyland. "If I said there wasn't confusion and chaos, I'd be lying." Unless ownership with deep pockets is found, major-league baseball may not last much longer in Pittsburgh. . . .

Leyland may be one of the few who can handle disgruntled Florida right fielder Gary Sheffield, who is quickly burning his bridges in the organization. He showed up late for stretching last week and was benched, and his publicist faxed word that Sheffield's tardiness was due to traffic; on a Sunday afternoon.

No schedule for Butler

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Brett Butler is recovering quickly and could play within a week, having regained almost 20 pounds he lost after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tonsil. But the Dodgers aren't counting on him to provide anything other than inspiration. "He hasn't played in four months," said Los Angeles manager Bill Russell. "He doesn't want to embarrass himself. We'll just have to see how he looks and feels."

Guillen in dog house

White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen hated Romance Night at Comiskey Park, when couples engaged in a game-long kissing contest. But Guillen liked Dog Day on Wednesday, when fans were allowed to bring their dogs (350 showed).

"A dog is always your friend," Guillen said. "They never complain. Your wife and your kids, they do that a lot. They can give you a lot of headaches. My dog never gives me a headache. Dogs wiggle their tails. They're always glad to see you. Sometimes my family doesn't want to see me."

Help for Knoblauch

One of those stranger-than-fiction stories: A radio personality named "Dark Star" was the driving force behind the five-year, $30 million contract signed by Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch last week. Dark Star arranged the meeting between Knoblauch and Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad. The Twins could've signed Knoblauch to a four-year, $17.8 million deal last spring and refused. That decision will end up costing them about $7 million.

The trade for Neagle all but assures that Steve Avery, a free agent after this year, won't be back with the Braves.

Last week, Pete Incaviglia said he wanted to be traded. "I've just been collecting dust," he said. "I still think I can contribute a lot . . . help somebody down the stretch. I'd love to be part of a contender." His wish was granted.

Putting on shows

Jim Abbott is 0-2 with a 2.86 ERA in three starts for Triple-A Vancouver and he'll make another start there before rejoining the California Angels.

Cincinnati catcher Eddie Taubensee got a charge out of seeing his name in the cleanup spot last Wednesday, but realizing the game was being played at Coors Field dampened his enthusiasm. "No big deal batting fourth here," he said. "Everybody in this park is a four-hole hitter."

California relievers Troy Percival and Mike James pump their fists as they celebrate strikeouts, even if they come in the midst of an inning, and that bothers some opponents. Like Mo Vaughn. "I don't show anyone up," said Vaughn, "but the next time I hit a bomb off [James], I'm going to stand there until it bounces off the seats."

Picking and choosing

Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez is so adept at picking off runners at first that he has a dramatic affect on how opponents run the bases, much less steal. "He makes it very hard to be aggressive," said Minnesota first base coach Ron Gardenhire. "If you lean at all, he's going to get you. I've never seen a catcher with an arm that's so strong and quick and accurate."

Boss blasts away

Rogers wasn't the only member of the Yankees that Steinbrenner blasted in an interview published last week. Steinbrenner wondered aloud how general manager Bob Watson could've traded for a player with a broken foot, Milwaukee's Pat Listach (the Brewers have since sent Ricky Bones to the Yankees to make amends).

"I'm trying to get the Milwaukee situation settled [on what] Watson got himself into," The Boss said. "We received two players -- one is in a cast -- and they got a first-string center fielder [Gerald Williams] and a reliever [Bob Wickman] who's thrown a few times already. It sure hasn't looked good so far. Nothing happens without my approval, but I told them, 'You guys do it. It's your deal. You say it's a good one.' " Same ol' George.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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