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Orioles Counting On Bullpen This Year, but . . . : Frank Robinson Has No Idea Which Five Pitchers Will Furnish That Relief

The Baltimore Evening Sun

Because the hallowed members of the Baltimore Orioles’ bullpen don’t figure to reach Cooperstown the conventional way, there’s only one hope of immortalizing their wild and wacky cause.

With a motto. Sort of an updated, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” but more urgent. “Rain or shine, pray for nine,” the relievers might say, begging the starters for complete games.

Manager Frank Robinson said recently that the bullpen will play a critical role for the Orioles this year, perhaps the most critical role, but he still has no idea who his five relievers will be.

That’s nothing unusual for this training camp, but the trade of Mike Morgan to the Los Angeles Dodgers further confused the issue, creating another opening for a reliever.

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What’s more, the bullpen makeup hinges not just on the performances of the remaining 10 or 11 candidates--it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number--but on the starters as well.

Brian Holton is a candidate both ways, and he’ll almost certainly take a permanent spot in the rotation if rookie Pete Harnisch (8.53 ERA in 6 1/3 innings this spring) continues to struggle.

Morgan’s departure, however, may make it even more important for the Orioles to keep the veteran Holton in relief. Robinson said he was considering Holton as a closer but not as a long man.

Meanwhile, the status of No. 1 draft pick Gregg Olson also remains in question. Like Holton, he can go either way, but the Orioles aren’t even sure it’s best for him to make the club.

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The Morgan trade changed the entire equation. Robinson said it would force the Orioles to “look a little longer” at Jose Mesa, who missed nearly all of ’88 with elbow trouble.

Robinson also indicated that major-league draft pick “Texas” Mike Smith is likely to make the club. Smith probably will start the season in long relief, a la Jose Bautista last year.

Mark Williamson and Mark Thurmond are two other leading contenders, and Jay Tibbs remains an outside threat. Tibbs, if nothing else, possesses a solid repertoire of pitches and experience.

The other Mike Smith, the one from Mississippi, is suffering from shoulder pain and is probably a long shot, yet he throws as hard as anyone. He had close to a 2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors.

Robinson wants to choose the 10 best pitchers, and under the circumstances, he probably can’t afford anything less if the Orioles are to be even mildly competitive.

Last year his starters averaged 5 2/3 innings per outing, and only the New York Yankees (5 1/3) were worse in the American League. This year, the Orioles may have an even lower average.

The rotation as of now would include two rookies (Harnisch and Bob Milacki), one pitcher in his second season (Bautista) and another in his third (Jeff Ballard).

The staff ace would be Dave Schmidt, who has never thrown more than 129 2/3 innings in a season and cannot be expected to challenge for the league lead in complete games.

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"(The bullpen) may be the single-most important thing on this team this year,” Robinson said. “They’re going to have to throw some innings. They’re going to have to save games for the young guys.

“They may have to come in earlier than you want. But it’s very important they don’t let games get away. That won’t build confidence in the young guys.”

The big questions revolve around Holton and Olson. Holton, a former Dodger, isn’t the man you want for short relief. He’s a breaking-ball pitcher, and his fastball is average, at best.

“He has an outstanding curveball, and he can throw it in critical situations,” Dodgers Executive Vice President Fred Claire said. “But we never quite envisioned him as a stopper.”

The Dodgers used Holton mainly in middle relief--he made only one start in 98 appearances the last two seasons--and that’s probably his best role.

But Robinson wasted Schmidt in that capacity last year, and he’s not going to make the same mistake twice. Holton wants to start, but he wouldn’t mind being the short man, either. “If it came down to that, I’d be comfortable with it,” he said. “I think I can handle it. I don’t think I could ever get in a more stressful situation than that playoff game last year.”

Olson is an entirely different issue. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in six exhibition innings, and he has shown he can pitch out of a windup. Clearly, he is one of the 10 best pitchers in camp.

However, he’s also last year’s No. 1 draft pick. Robinson has said that the decision on Olson will be made not just by the coaching staff, but by the entire organization.

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Olson, of course, was a reliever at Auburn, and it’s unlikely he’ll crack the Orioles’ staff as a starter. “That may be asking too much,” farm director Doug Melvin said.

Middle relief, then, might be ideal, for it would allow Olson to gain experience in low-pressure situations. Otherwise, he probably is better off starting for triple-A Rochester.

Beyond those two pitchers, the Orioles are scraping to find a left-handed reliever. There are no Dan Plesacs in camp.

Robinson’s main choices are Mark Thurmond and Kevin Hickey. He said it would be “awful tough” for both to make the club. In truth, neither strikes his fancy.

Why else would Robinson continue to include Al Holland and Robinson Garces among his contenders? Hickey throws harder than Thurmond, but he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 1983.

Rain or shine, pray for nine?

Alas, it’s too early for the motto.


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