Rocker might fit bill, but price huge


Orioles professional scouts received a memorandum last week reminding them to go beyond what they see, trust their instincts and base much of their read on intangibles.

Without even answering, the club may have given its response to the John Rocker question: Namely, would a franchise dealing with the game's most inconsistent bullpen contemplate the addition of one of the game's most inconsistent, spurned personalities?

Rocker is spending his weekend in Ohio trying to rediscover the form that made him the National League's most effective left-handed closer in 1999.

He is also trying to find refuge from the backlash that has tailed him since he ridiculed New York City among demographic lines. The Orioles are spending their weekend in fourth place with one eye looking toward 2001. Both Rocker and the Orioles would prefer to be somewhere else.

The Braves, as adroit at deflecting criticism as the Orioles are at attracting it, may be playing a shell game with Rocker. Option him to Triple-A Richmond to work on his mechanics immediately after a nationally publicized tirade against a magazine reporter.

Perhaps deny him arbitration with an extended minor-league stay. As a bonus, maybe he misses this month's series in New York.

Meanwhile, trade offers are welcome in Atlanta and Baltimore.

Rocker's absence makes it unlikely the Braves will trade either Kerry Ligtenberg or Mike Remlinger. It does create a desire for another proven late-inning arm.

Such a need could mesh with the availability of Orioles closer Mike Timlin (four years, $16 million) or setup man Mike Trombley (three years, $7.75 million). Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift won't deny their availability, but he will dispute the level of urgency behind finding a match.

The Orioles' bullpen, meanwhile, entered Friday's play as the game's worst, having blown 15 of 22 save chances and amassed a 6.58 ERA while surrendering 32 home runs in 143 2/3 innings. The Orioles played 23 one-run games among their first 57. They are 4-13 in one-run games on the road.

"Timlin is starting to come. That first game with the Mets is where we want to be," said Thrift. "We're not going to look to dump somebody. We'd have to get somebody in return with a reasonably high ceiling. We've have to get true value. If I visualize either one of those guys [Timlin or Trombley] going somewhere else, it would have be for something pretty decent."

Thrift said: "I don't think we have any taboo names," but he would like to stay away from just one. Thrift and majority owner Peter Angelos have not discussed Rocker. Nor did Thrift dispatch a scout to Toledo on Friday to watch the left-hander's first performance in an R-Braves uniform.

"I would want to make sure if we acquired any player, regardless of whether he's a pitcher or a player, of not bringing a disruptive element into the clubhouse," said Thrift.

"We stressed in Pittsburgh to get a bunch of championship performers who could mix in a clubhouse. You might say we had Barry Bonds. Barry Bonds was fine with me. The clubhouse is very important."

Rocker supposedly was ticketed earlier this season for Tampa Bay, where former Braves director of scouting and player development Chuck LaMar now serves as general manager.

But the Devil Rays are fighting a public relations war to sway an apathetic public while owner Vince Naimoli has cut off communications with the hometown St. Petersburg Times.

With little hope of becoming competitive in the near term, the novelty/distraction of Rocker's presence would outweigh any tangible benefit he could bring to the game's worst team.

The latest persistent rumor has the Montreal Expos interested in him. Rocker fits the profile of what the Expos need - a hard-throwing, inexpensive reliever who could bolster a team finding itself surprisingly in the National League wild-card mix.

Delicious irony would surround such a move. Rocker, who complained about not hearing an English-speaking New Yorker for blocks, suddenly transported to francophone Montreal with its respected manager who also happens to be a minority member.

Having optioned B.J. Ryan to Rochester on Friday while looking for a trade outlet for Chuck McElroy, the Orioles are hardly deep with left-handed relievers.

Rocker's marketability would be significantly higher had he made his bothersome remarks to hunting buddies rather than to a Sports Illustrated reporter with a live tape recorder.

But the Orioles aren't exactly novices at ignoring public sentiment.

The reactionary signing of outfielder Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract complete with three years of blanket no-trade protection was made against the advice of virtually everyone.

In return for making Belle the game's highest-paid position player, Angelos received a troubled season in which Belle ranked 20th in the major leagues in home runs and RBIs, sparred with his lame-duck manager, made little attempt to deal with local media and became the focal point of fan complaints about his behavior in right field.

Belle vowed to Angelos last off-season to become more fan-friendly, a promise he has kept, but he has never followed through on a pledge made during spring training to become more accessible to the media.

Belle, unlike Rocker, has not been classified as a distraction or a "cancer" by teammates. However, on a chronically underachieving team with an increasingly negative image, even Angelos would admit he has been a poor investment.

Angelos also showed himself willing to brave condemnation by the Cuban exile community last spring when he orchestrated home-and-home exhibitions against a select team from the communist nation.

Does Rocker carry baggage? More than a fleet of UPS trucks.

Rocker also carries a negligible contract and likely won't be arbitration-eligible after this season. Were the Orioles unable to withstand negative public reaction, another petulant Rocker moment or protracted ineffectiveness by the left-hander, they could simply release him.

No names are taboo, according to Thrift. But with one, nothing is simple.


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