FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Goals have become a more complex thing for Jose Mercedes. Relatively unknown when he walked into Fort Lauderdale Stadium a year ago, Mercedes returned Tuesday as the Orioles' leading winner from the 2000 season.
A year ago, Mercedes only wanted to return to the major leagues.
This year, he wants something far more complicated: improving upon the numbers that made him a pitcher of significance last season.
"I won 14 games last season after starting from nowhere, really," Mercedes said after yesterday's opening workout for pitchers and catchers. "I won 14 games even though I pitched some in the bullpen and didn't pitch at all at other times. I don't see why I can't win more than 13 games this year."
Mercedes surprised everyone except himself with last season's 14-7 record. He entered the season with a lifetime 11-15 mark constructed in pieces of five hardscrabble seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. He exited as his league's winningest pitcher after the All-Star break and at one time manager Mike Hargrove's probable Opening Day starter.
The Orioles since have acquired former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen, but Mercedes remains as one of three Orioles pitchers in the past three seasons to win 14 games.
"I showed everybody last year how I can pitch when I'm healthy, rested and used in the way I'm most comfortable," Mercedes said.
Payoff comes sometime between now and Tuesday, when a three-man panel may issue its ruling on Mercedes' arbitration case with the Orioles. Mercedes submitted a bid of $3.8 million contrasted by the club's $2.75 million offer. The disparity was fourth largest among the 64 players who filed last month and is expected to take the parties to Phoenix for a Monday hearing.
"My job is to get people out," Mercedes said. "My agent's job is to negotiate the best contract he can for me. That's what I pay him for. If we have to go [to arbitration], we have to go. That's fine."
To Mercedes, Monday's scheduled hearing represents just another chance to prove himself to a club that juggled his role and attempted to send him to Triple-A before he broke out with 11 second-half wins, most in the American League and as many as he had compiled in 71 major-league appearances entering last season.
Few major-league players have come as far in the past year as Mercedes, who will turn 30 on March 5. Signed to a minor-league contract at the urging of director of Latin American scouting Carlos Bernhardt, Mercedes walked into camp last February a non-roster invitee who hadn't pitched in the major leagues since undergoing rotator cuff surgery in May 1998. Only the combination of Scott Erickson's early elbow problems and Jason Johnson's horrid camp provided Mercedes the opportunity to make the team.
Even then, Mercedes began last season in Rochester as the Orioles' 12th pitcher, waiting until April 9 to assume the fifth starter's role.
Mercedes made only four starts before being sent to the bullpen in late April. Perhaps the most bizarre twist of his season came June 14 when Hargrove notified him that he was being sent to Triple-A Rochester. Only the club's failure to first obtain necessary waivers prevented the move.
"I started four games and won two. I was a .500 pitcher when I left the rotation. There were other pitchers who hadn't won in 12 starts, and they were still getting chances. That didn't make sense to me," said Mercedes, whose oblique reference was to Johnson's troubled season.
"There were a lot of things going through my mind," he recalled. "I was constantly wondering what was going on. In my mind, I've always been a starting pitcher. They knew that. I was doing something I had never done before and it was hard for me to understand why."
Mercedes remembers a meeting with Hargrove and then-pitching coach Sammy Ellis in which he voiced his concerns. Hargrove returned him to the rotation July 8, telling Mercedes, "Show me the way you can pitch."
The answer was 11 second-half wins and a complete game in Mercedes' final 16 starts, including two wins against the Chicago White Sox, one against the Cleveland Indians and another against the New York Yankees on the final day of the season.
"What impressed me the most was that Jose didn't just beat average teams. He beat a lot of solid teams that had something to play for," said catcher Brook Fordyce, whose July 29 arrival from the White Sox coincided with Mercedes lowering his ERA from 5.28 to a season-ending 4.02. "He's got great command of three pitches that he'll throw at any time, and he works ahead. What's not to like?"
Mercedes' stature - and his issues - have indeed evolved.
Instead of a locker along the clubhouse's back wall, an area reserved for non-roster types, Mercedes now enjoys a space alongside Sidney Ponson, Hentgen and Erickson. Monday's arbitration case will make him a millionaire regardless of outcome, and he is poised to explore free agency after this season, making the possibility of his signing a multi-year deal before the hearing more remote.
Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift expressed frustration earlier this week over the pace of talks with Mercedes' agent, Dick Moss. Mercedes said yesterday that Moss is waiting for the club's modified proposal.
"I don't know what is holding them back. Maybe they think they have too good of a case to settle," Mercedes said. "But we think we have a pretty good case, too."