- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Two days ago Jason Johnson was the Baltimore Orioles' No. 3 pitcher. Today he's not even on the team.

A terrible spring got worse for Johnson when the 26-year-old right-hander was demoted to the Orioles' Class AAA affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. It was a fast fall from grace for Johnson, who was being counted on to help fill the void created by Scott Erickson's elbow surgery, and one that mirrors the situation of the Orioles' rotation, an area that was supposed to be a strength but now is unproven.

"Everybody, including me, thought that Jason would be on the club. But to be brutally honest, he pitched his way out of contention," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who broke the news to Johnson yesterday morning.

Clearly dejected, Johnson politely declined comment. His demotion makes Pat Rapp the third starter and guarantees Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes, both of whom had strong camps, the fourth and fifth spots, respectively. Mercedes, however, will begin the season on the minor league roster because the Orioles, because of the way the schedule is set, won't need a fifth starter until May 9.

Johnson came to spring training amid high expectations. He was considered a lock for the fourth spot this spring after he finished last season 5-0 in his final eight starts. He moved up to third in the rotation March 3 when Erickson, the Orioles' No. 2 starter, underwent elbow surgery that is expected to shelve him until early May.

But Johnson struggled with his control this spring, often falling behind hitters or grooving fastballs when he was ahead in the count. In 22 innings over six appearances he gave up 34 hits and 18 walks for a disturbing 6.95 ERA.

"I didn't anticipate having that conversation with him," Hargrove said. "I honestly believe Jason has the stuff to get major league hitters out on a consistent basis. I fully anticipate him being on this staff this year. But he's got to get the command on his pitches back, and I think the best place for him to do that is in an atmosphere with a little less pressure. So we sent him to Rochester."

In many ways Johnson embodies the Orioles rotation. With Opening Day on Monday, the rotation includes one of the game's best pitchers, a 23-year-old who gave up 35 home runs last year, a free agent journeyman who was unsigned two months ago and two pitchers who weren't in the majors last season.

With Mike Mussina and Erickson anchoring the rotation, the Orioles had high hopes, especially since they thought Johnson and Sidney Ponson could blossom. Now, after Mussina pitches, the Orioles will cross their fingers and hope for lots of offense.

"Are we as good as we could be without Erickson? No we're not," Hargrove said. "But I have confidence in the people we have to get the job done."

Despite Hargrove's confidence, the Orioles are exploring trade opportunities. But at this time of the year virtually no one will part with the type of pitcher the Orioles need to improve their rotation. Still, the Orioles are serious enough about upgrading that they will consider trading prospects they once considered off limits.

"The problem is you have to give up people you don't want to give up," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said. "But [for a pitcher] we would certainly consider it."

Thrift said a trade before Opening Day would be "highly unlikely," which means Ponson will begin the season as the Orioles' No. 2 starter, a precarious place for a pitcher who gave up 35 homers last season and has not been impressive this spring. Ponson has given up 36 hits five of them home runs and nine walks in 23 innings for a 7.04 ERA.

"Sidney hasn't pitched smart," Thrift said. "He's been throwing instead of pitching."

Rapp will follow him in the rotation. The 31-year-old is a former 14-game winner, and he has been impressive most of the spring. But he gave up 11 hits and five runs in six innings yesterday, a 10-9 win over the Twins, hardly the kind of performance that inspires confidence.

"The biggest thing for me is not to walk anybody," said Rapp, who joined the Orioles on Jan. 28 after finding little interest on the free agent market. "I'm not happy I gave up so many hits, but a lot of them were bloops to right field that I'm not worried about. But the times I got hit hard were when I was behind 3-1. I just need to concentrate on staying ahead."

And then there's Mercedes and Maduro. Both pitchers spent all of last season at Class AAA. While both have looked good, neither has spent an entire season as a major league starter.

Despite the state of his rotation, Hargrove doesn't believe any of the starters need to have career years.

"I don't think so," he said. "If the people we have pitch to their ability, we'll be all right. It would be nice if someone had a breakthrough year, but it's not essential."

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