So far, Orioles right on money with their revamped bullpen

The Baltimore Sun

While it's still too soon to make a definitive judgment, things are looking up for the Orioles' bullpen. It has a 3.35 ERA after last night's game in St. Petersburg, Fla., as opposed to last season's 5.25 figure. Throw out the April 7 fiasco in New York and this year's number is really low.

For some reason, this improvement was deemed inevitable, both here and throughout the major leagues, because the Orioles spent $42.4 million last winter on four veteran relief pitchers with proven track records - Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson.

But anyone who assumed that investment would pay off hasn't paid attention to the Orioles' recent history.

During nine straight losing seasons, they have all but perfected the art of the BBP - the botched bullpen patch.

A year ago, they paid LaTroy Hawkins $4.4 million to serve as a bridge to closer Chris Ray. Opponents batted .300 against Hawkins, who is now in Colorado.

In 2005, two Steves, Kline and Reed, were brought in for ballast, but Reed was dumped by July, and Kline, who had signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract, was traded after a miserable season in which he reported overweight, insulted Baltimore and pitched poorly.

The year before that, Mike DeJean was supposedly the answer, but he generated only questions, going 0-5 before being traded.

The Orioles' tradition of botched patches goes all the way back to the 1990s with Mike Timlin and Heathcliff Slocumb, relievers who pitched well elsewhere, came to Baltimore and bombed.

It's doubtful any of this year's Fab Four knew of this history, and even if they had, they wouldn't have been scared away. The Orioles offered them all contracts they couldn't refuse, paying top dollar - overpaying, many said - in hopes of slaying this nettlesome bullpen beast once and for all.

But throwing money at any pitching problem is a risky proposition these days. Expansion has lowered standards of acceptable performance, and steroid-popping hitters have taken a toll. Pitching just isn't as predictable as it used to be. Give any guy money and you start crossing your fingers, hoping he likes the pitching coach, the catcher, the ballpark and the league, and also reports in shape, with his head on straight, and doesn't get hurt.

Good luck.

The Orioles' shoddy history with relievers is just one of many examples of the uncertainty involved. In Toronto, $47 million closer B.J. Ryan is on the disabled list with an elbow injury, and $55 million starter A.J. Burnett is 11-9 since joining the club. And in San Francisco, well, the world has turned upside down, however briefly.

Seeking to upgrade their rotation last winter, the Giants signed free agent Barry Zito to a $126 million contract, the most lucrative in history for a pitcher. They also brought in Russ Ortiz, seemingly out of pity; a former 20-game winner, Ortiz was battered so hard as an Oriole last season that it's amazing anyone thought he had anything left.

Well, Ortiz not only has pitched well enough to make the rotation, but he also is out-pitching Zito so far.

Zito showed up at spring training and announced he was changing the windup he had used to win 102 games in Oakland, no doubt causing members of the Giants front office to choke on their coffee. Zito abandoned his experiment but seems to be struggling to live up to his contract. He is 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA after the Giants' 8-0 win over the Rockies last night.

Ortiz, meanwhile, won his first game since August 2005 last Friday. His fastball has gained 4 mph and he is pitching better than he ever did in Baltimore, not that anyone could pitch worse.

I'm not saying the Orioles are cursed; every team can cite examples of pitchers who have performed better elsewhere. I'm just saying the Orioles took a bigger risk than you think by investing so much in relievers.

But so far, so good.

Each of the Fab Four has been effective, with Walker (1.50 ERA in eight appearances) looking especially sharp. Fittingly, the only one who has looked slightly shaky (4.05 ERA in seven appearances) is the highest-paid: Baez, who signed a three-year, $19 million deal.

You're probably looking at one of baseball's better bullpens when you throw in Ray, a star closer in the making, and left-hander John Parrish, who has pitched his way into the mix.

Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo is going to have to figure out how not to burn out Walker, Bradford and Ray, but having dependable options sure beats last year's nightmare.

As I said, it's still early and there are going to be hiccups, but protecting a larger percentage of their leads could propel the Orioles close to .500. The fact that they had to overpay doesn't matter. After years of botching patches, the sight of a solid bullpen is priceless.

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