O's pitchers arm-wrestle for five spots


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles are trying some new math this spring: seven established starting pitchers, five spots.

Anyone see a problem here? "Ask the Yankees that," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove quipped yesterday, as pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Over in Tampa, the New York Yankees also have seven starters vying for five spots. Of course, the Yankees have about $60 million invested in that group of Jose Contreras, Roger Clemens, Sterling Hitchcock, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Weaver and David Wells.

The Orioles have less than $20 million invested in their septet of Omar Daal, Scott Erickson, Rick Helling, Pat Hentgen, Jason Johnson, Rodrigo Lopez and Sidney Ponson.

Still, the Orioles made starting pitching a priority this offseason, adding Daal and Helling, even though most of their energy went toward adding a slugger for the middle of the batting order. So far, the search for offense has been fruitless, but everyone in camp assumes there will be at least one significant trade before the end of spring training.

Beginning today, the focus will center on the Starting Seven, many of whom will spend camp wondering if they're about to be shipped somewhere else in a trade.

"If it happens, it happens," said Ponson, the most likely trade target in his final year before free agency. "I'll have to pack my bags and go. I can't do anything about it."

Johnson, another reluctant trade candidate, sized up the Starting Seven for a moment yesterday and said: "We've got a good pitching staff. I don't know if they're gearing up for a trade or what."

To be sure, the Orioles also stockpiled starters because they aren't sure what to expect from Hentgen and Erickson. Hentgen went 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA in September, coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery.

Erickson went 2-4 with an 8.19 ERA after the All-Star break and was diagnosed with a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder this offseason. Erickson has told Orioles trainer Richie Bancells and pitching coach Mark Wiley that he'll be fine this spring, but the team won't be sure until he lets loose.

If Erickson and Hentgen are both healthy, the logjam will make it almost impossible for youngsters such as Sean Douglass, John Stephens and Steve Bechler to crack the starting rotation. They will get chances this spring, but at this point, all three are likely headed to Triple-A Ottawa.

"There are opportunities and there are always surprises," Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "And there's nothing wrong with having, as Earl [Weaver, former Orioles manager] said, deep depth. You start backing up the talent level of the organization, and that's when you start winning at all the levels.

"You can make a case for guys to learn on the job here, but we don't want to do that."

Seven into five

The Orioles have seven pitchers vying for five spots in the starting rotation. A look at their 2002 and career stats and a comment on each pitcher (ranked in order of their chances of making the rotation):

Rodrigo Lopez

Team W L ERA G

Orioles 15 9 3.57 33

Totals 15 12 4.15 39

Comment: He's the projected Opening Day starter, but he's also a trade target, and he must prove he isn't a one-year wonder.

Sidney Ponson

Orioles 7 9 4.09 28

Totals 41 53 4.74 146

Comment: Insiders say the Orioles are still afraid to trade him inside the American League, for fear that he'll not only blossom, but also beat them regularly.

Rick Helling

Arizona 10 12 4.51 30

Totals 82 70 4.72 231

Comment: He signed a minor-league deal, but he was a No. 3 starter last year behind Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.

Omar Daal

L.A. 11 9 3.90 39

Totals 64 67 4.40 373

Comment: He's a soft-tossing left-hander who relies heavily on his control, but the Orioles gave him $3 million this season to start, not relieve. Jason Johnson

Orioles 5 14 4.59 22

Totals 26 48 5.14 117

Comment: Scouts still think he could blossom into a No. 2 starter. His run support last season (3.4 runs per nine innings) was worse than Ponson's (4.1).

Pat Hentgen

Orioles 0 4 7.77 4

Totals 122 95 4.22 298

Comment: He was the Orioles' Opening Day starter in 2001, and he climbs this list in a hurry if his arm is 100 percent.

Scott Erickson

Orioles 5 12 5.55 29

Totals 140 128 4.51 355

Comment: He was last year's Opening Day starter, and he also climbs in a hurry if healthy.

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