BASEBALL : Bullpen Problems Are Evident Early

THE SPORTING NEWS

It has become a knee-jerk staple of baseball wisdom that you can't win a title without having an established bullpen closer. If indeed that is true, there are more than a dozen clubs that entered this season at a disadvantage.

Baseball's overall scarcity of pitching has particularly hit the bullpens, especially after injuries to closers Duane Ward, Rob Dibble, Rod Beck, Norm Charlton, Alejandro Pena and Gregg Olson. So not only are clubs lacking proven closers, but the ripple effect also is reaching the area of middle relief, which is likely the weakest overall position in baseball. As if to underscore all this, Colorado's bullpen opened the season by allowing 23 runs from the seventh inning on in the first three games.

But relief problems aren't just the worry of expansion teams. Many clubs that think of themselves as contenders enter this season with unproven pitchers or amorphous committees as their bullpen closers.

For example, Cleveland hopes it can be a factor in the A.L. Central with Steve Farr, who cannot pitch successive days, and an unproven closer in Jose Mesa. Seattle hopes it can win the A.L. West with inexperienced Bobby Ayala as its closer. The Yankees hope Xavier Hernandez can grow into a closer's role he has never before been asked to fill. Cincinnati hopes Hector Carrasco, who never pitched above Class A before this year, can be the N.L.'s newest nasty boy. Philadelphia hopes Doug Jones can hold the fort until Charlton or rookie Ricky Bottalico is ready.

And though it may not be necessary to have that one Eckersley-esque closer, no team contends if it is consistently unable to hold late-inning leads.

"When you lose leads in the late innings, it can affect a whole team for the next few days," Marlins Manager Rene Lachemann says. "And when you have that one guy who you know will do the job, it gives a big lift to a team. It gives the team a feeling of security."

Lachemann should know that feeling. As a coach with the Athletics, he watched Dennis Eckersley's vintage years as baseball's best closer. Now he manages Bryan Harvey, who is one of the best in the business.

Because Florida is not going to contend this year, Harvey is viewed by many people as a baseball luxury to be inevitably traded by the building Marlins. But General Manager Dave Dombrowski remains adamant about not dealing Harvey unless he is overwhelmed with an offer.

"For one thing, having Harvey makes us a competitive team, so we're not going to look to trade him," Dombrowski says. "We've said all along that no one on our club is untouchable. But unless we can get three or four quality young players, we're simply not going to give up Bryan. We're not going to take mediocre talent for someone who is so valuable."

It's still too early in the season for relief-starved teams to start making inquiries about Harvey. However, Minnesota, another struggling club with a blue-chip reliever in Rick Aguilera, has already had discussions. For example, Cleveland was close to sending infielder Mark Lewis and pitcher Jerry DiPoto to the Twins for Aguilera until DiPoto was sidelined with illness. And the Indians were also scared off by Aguilera's big contract.

Seattle also has had interest in Aguilera, and he seems the most likely established reliever to be dealt in the coming months.

Some help is on the way in other places. Beck should rejoin the Giants in a couple of weeks. Charlton is weeks ahead of his projected recovery from elbow surgery and could join the Phillies by the end of the month. The Blue Jays are confident that Ward will be back this month as well.

But there are a lot of clubs crossing their fingers about unproven performers in one of baseball's most important jobs.

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The owners should have some idea of what will happen with the commissioner vacancy within the next few weeks.

If Sen. George Mitchell is not nominated for the Supreme Court, he would become a mortal lock to be pursued as the owners' first choice. If Mitchell is nominated for the court, then the owners would appear to be back to square one. However, there is some talk that several owners are interested in turning to Paul Kirk, the respected former head of the Democratic National Committee. Kirk had been among the leading candidates in the owners' last effort to find a commissioner.

However, the game is facing issues much bigger than a vacant commissioner's office. Perhaps it is part of ownership's strategy to reveal franchise problems just as the labor sabres are beginning to rattle.

But threats by the Haas family to sell the Oakland A's appear real. The Montreal Expos are mired in growing financial problems. The Pirates could be on the precipice of serious sale efforts to out-of-town interests. The Padres' financial future is murky, and the Twins have been available for two years.

With congressional efforts to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption beginning to heat up, there is the growing possibility of widespread franchise shifting over the next few years. All of which just adds to the weird contradiction of a sport that is buoyant in new talent and fan interest being threatened with so much potential off-field disruption.

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Around the bases: It certainly wasn't the best way for the Rangers to open their season when Roger Pavlik and Bruce Hurst suffered setbacks in their recovery from arm problems. The Rangers probably will have to dip into the farm system when they need a fifth starter this week. Beyond that was a dugout squabble between pitcher Kenny Rogers and catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Ron Gant could be ready to play by mid-June. However, he and his agent, Eric Goldschmidt, are telling interested clubs they want a one-year contract without any other options. It might be risky strategy but potentially effective. Gant is confident he will come back at 100 percent, thereby reinforcing his value and becoming a highly desired offseason free agent. Right now, Gant would under-value his potential worth by signing a contract that would include option years that buy up a couple of years of potential free agency. And if Gant maintains his interest in a contract for only 1994, it could bring into the bidding clubs who may not be financially equipped to give Gant multiyear guarantees but would be willing to pay Gant for a half-year contribution that could mean the difference in the race for the playoffs.

The Mets are playing hard ball with Dwight Gooden, who can become a free agent. One reason is that Gooden appears to no longer have the consistent fastball with which to challenge hitters. However, some players shouldn't be forced to shop their services, and Gooden's tenure with the Mets should keep him in New York. ... Several executives from other clubs indicate Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner is pushing to shop pitcher Jim Abbott.

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