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Orioles' puzzle pieces spring to life; Pitchers' arrival takes team on paper to field

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Ricky Bones, meet Heathcliff Slocumb. Charles Johnson, say hello to Arthur Rhodes. Mike Timlin, here's your closer's role. See how it fits. And as they open the gates of creaky Fort Lauderdale Stadium to pitchers and catchers today, the Orioles may thankfully say goodbye to 1998.

Manager Ray Miller and general manager Frank Wren have spent the winter talking up a team supposedly stripped of its lethargy and replaced by a more driven veteran mix. Now the names step off paper.

For the next six weeks Miller will tinker with various batting orders and try to shepherd a fragile pitching staff through 29 exhibition games. Does right fielder Albert Belle bat third or fourth and who hits behind him? Is No. 4 starting pitcher Scott Kamieniecki ready to return from disk fusion? What will Chris Hoiles' new role be? Does Wren have the ammunition -- and the nerve -- to acquire the starting pitcher that has eluded the Orioles since last October?

The questions are relatively few for a 79-83 team that spent the off-season redecorating its front office and its clubhouse.

Do the walls and the furniture clash? Is the musty smell gone?

"We've got more speed. We've got people who aren't afraid to run," Miller said yesterday as a handful of pitchers eased through the clubhouse. "We've got some experienced arms who can handle situations. I'm looking forward to seeing how it comes together."

Miller predicts these Orioles will be a more aggressive team on the bases. He also predicts/hopes that a healthier starting rotation will allow him to match roles with relievers, something that never occurred last season.

"If our starters consistently go six or seven innings, our bullpen will be fine," he said. "If they don't, then there's not a bullpen around that can succeed."

The first official workout occurs tomorrow when pitching coach Bruce Kison, relievers Bones, Slocumb, Timlin and Mike Fetters as well as catcher Johnson make their first appearance in an Orioles uniform. Hitting coach Terry Crowley and former Rochester manager Marv Foley also will join Miller's reconfigured staff.

Miller acknowledges that, barring injury, his veteran team appears virtually set as it enters camp.

Should Miller opt to keep 12 pitchers entering the season, only left-hander Doug Johns appears vulnerable to challenge. Though Fetters, the most recent of the Orioles' nine free-agent signings, is technically a nonroster player, his exclusion is due to a jammed 40-man roster more so than misgivings about his role.

Miller intends to audition prospects Gabe Molina and Chris Fussell, minor-league free agent Doug Linton, former No. 5 starter Rocky Coppinger and 30-year-old left-handed nomad Terry Burrows, who split last season between Rochester's rotation and bullpen. Coppinger, soon to turn 25 and now two seasons removed from his 10-win rookie season, must again rehabilitate his standing after an unproductive winter league experience abbreviated by injury or disinterest, according to diverging accounts.

Kison arrives as the club's sixth pitching coach in six years. He will be responsible for establishing a rapport with a veteran staff that produced under Miller in 1997 and accepted Mike Flanagan despite last season's injury-related meltdown.

Central to the rotation's reconstruction is the consistency of third starter Juan Guzman and Kamieniecki, who follow staff anchors Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson.

Guzman, who has averaged seven wins the last four seasons, bounced between dominance and tedium in 11 starts with the Orioles after a July 31 trade that brought him from Toronto. Dealt during a multi-year contract, Guzman declined to exercise his right to demand a trade and lends a wild-card presence to a delicate staff.

"I'm anxious to see if Guzman can bounce back. He can be big for us," said Miller, wary of the veteran's chronically high pitch count and checkered health history.

Kamieniecki, who turns 35 in April, underwent season-ending surgery on Sept. 15 to fuse two disks in his lower neck and managed only two wins after signing a two-year, $6.2 million contract.

"We'll be very conscious of not overextending him," Miller said yesterday between conversations with his staff. "For example, if we get two good innings out of him in an early game, I'm going to get him out of there if there's any question about pitch count.

"You can go to the bullpen, throw 30 pitches, and get your work in without overextending."

Projected No. 5 starter Sidney Ponson is coming off a 7-3 finish to last season and will devote this spring to mixing a slider among his often overpowering assortment. Ponson, 22, already attended a Duke University weight-loss program this winter, working 10 hours a day for two weeks.

"I'm looking at this spring just like last spring," said Ponson, a call-up from Rochester last May who never returned to Triple-A. "I don't have the team made. I have to show them I deserve to be here. From that standpoint, nothing has changed in my mind."

There will be subtle differences. Given Johnson's presence, the club hopes pitch-calling and pace of game improve. Interminable pickoff attempts should decrease.

The four-time National League Gold Glove Award winner carries a career 43 percent success rate against opposing base stealers and an accompanying reputation rivaled only by Texas Rangers All-Star Ivan Rodriguez.

"He was the best catcher in the National League. He's in the same class as Pudge," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "In my mind he's ahead of Pudge because he's done something Rodriguez hasn't done. He's won a World Series."

NOTE: A three-man panel heard catcher Johnson's arbitration case, with a decision likely today. Johnson is seeking a raise from $3.3 million to $5.1 million. The Orioles offered $3.6 million.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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