Helling gets last spot in rotation


PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Orioles manager Mike Hargrove reluctantly sent former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen to the bullpen yesterday, announcing plans to open the season with a starting rotation of Rodrigo Lopez, Omar Daal, Rick Helling, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson.

Helling and Hentgen were battling for the third spot, and Hargrove said he gave the nod to Helling because he was more consistent this spring. Helling has posted a 3.42 ERA in exhibition play, and Hentgen's ERA is 6.30.

The Orioles entered camp with seven established major-league starters vying for five spots, leaving Hargrove with some tough decisions, even after Scott Erickson decided to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. The club was willing to trade a starter to help bolster the offense, but a deal hasn't materialized, leaving a pitching surplus.

"I think this is as strong and deep a rotation as we've had at any time since I've been here," said Hargrove, who is entering his fourth season with the Orioles.

Hargrove met individually with Hentgen and then Helling before yesterday's rain-abbreviated exhibition game against the New York Mets. Hentgen, who hasn't pitched out of the bullpen since he was with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993, will be used in a long-relief role, though Hargrove said he also could see using Hentgen for shorter relief stints.

"I work for the Orioles, and I'm going to do what they want me to do, but I'm disappointed," said Hentgen, who won a Cy Young Award for Toronto in 1996. "I feel like I can still start and be competitive and win games, and I'd much rather be starting."

Asked if he would consider asking for a trade to a team that would let him start, Hentgen said, "It's a possibility, but there's not a whole lot you can do as a player."

He still feels loyal to the Orioles for giving him a $9.6 million contract to sign after the 2000 season. A torn ligament in his pitching elbow has limited him to 13 starts over the past two years.

Hentgen, 34, made it easier for the club to keep him in November, when he agreed to void his last contract and waive the $600,000 buyout the club owed him for this year. The Orioles used that money toward Hentgen's new deal, which includes a $1.2 million base salary and incentives that can pay him up to $4 million.

Those incentives don't start kicking in, however, until Hentgen reaches 150 innings pitched, and that will be a lot harder starting the season in the bullpen.

Hentgen had a shaky start this spring, but he made a convincing case for himself on Monday, when he held the Minnesota Twins to one run on five hits over six innings, striking out five.

"When Pat puts in the performance he did at Fort Myers [on Monday], and you add in his character, the competitor he is and the winner he is, it's a tough decision to make," Hargrove said. "We felt like in both the short-term and long-term interest of the club, this was the way to go."

The Orioles signed Helling to a minor-league contract four days before camp opened, and by making the club's Opening Day roster, he'll receive $1 million. He has the chance to make up to $1 million more in incentives.

Helling, 32, said he was pleased to make the starting rotation, but his excitement was somewhat tempered.

"I've got a lot of respect for Pat," Helling said. "I think we're very similar in our styles, very similar in our mentalities. He's the kind of guy I would want on my team if I were a manager. Even though I'm sure he's not happy, he'll go down to the 'pen and pitch his butt off."

Hentgen said his surgically repaired right elbow has felt stronger with each outing this spring. In Monday's start, his fastball reached 89 mph, which is where it was before he had the "Tommy John" surgery.

Hargrove said Hentgen's health did not play into the decision and said he wasn't concerned about how Hentgen's elbow would hold up with sporadic bullpen use.

"I don't plan on running Pat out there three or four days in a row," Hargrove said, "so we don't anticipate it being a problem."

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