- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Upon arriving at the Baltimore Orioles' spring training complex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last year, Jose Mercedes was merely one of a dozen faceless pitchers hoping to defy the odds and make the team as a nonroster invitee.

Less than a week into camp, Mercedes already had separated himself from the pack, and by the time September rolled around, the 29-year-old right-hander had become the Orioles' most-reliable starter.

Fast forward to this year's spring training, when an obscure 25-year-old pitcher named Willis Roberts who had spent the last eight seasons bouncing around the minor leagues impressed Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove so much during a one-inning intrasquad appearance that Roberts instantly thrust himself into the battle for a bullpen spot.

Now he's worked his way into the starting rotation, having won two games, including his first major league start Friday night. He'll be back on the mound tomorrow when the Orioles face the Detroit Tigers in the second game of a three-game series at Comerica Park.

The two have their differences: Roberts is a classic power pitcher, Mercedes relies more on changing speeds. Both, however, came to the Orioles after director of Latin American scouting Carlos Bernhardt spotted them in the Dominican Winter League.

That Roberts and Mercedes each made a name for himself early on in spring training should come as no surprise.

"I came straight from winter ball into spring training, so my mentality was already in the ballgame," said Mercedes, whose 2.45 ERA with Estrellas of the Dominican league got him into spring training and 2.70 ERA during camp earned him a place on Baltimore's 25-man roster. "The first week or so, they had to push me back because I was ahead of everybody."

Ditto for Roberts, who went 6-1 with a 1.66 ERA with the same Estrellas team before posting a 2.37 ERA in spring training.

"Willie, he came from down there and was pitching great," Mercedes said. "He only had two weeks off. So when he came to spring training, he was right there. He carried it from winter ball to spring training, from spring training to the season."

It's by no means a sure thing, signing a guy based off his performance in winter ball. But a strong showing in the Latin American leagues particularly in the Dominican can often help catapult a player to the major leagues.

"You've got to be careful sometimes with people who have success in the winter leagues," Hargrove said, "especially coming into spring training because they're on top of their games when everyone else isn't. But we've been very fortunate the last couple of years that we've been able to pick up Jose and Willis. I think a lot of credit goes to Carlos Bernhardt in spotting these guys and, of course, [vice president of baseball operations] Syd Thrift in stepping up and committing to them."

There's no secret formula to the pair's success, nothing either one did differently in the Dominican than he had done previously in the United States.

But in an age of year-round conditioning, nothing prepares a pitcher better for the upcoming season than a four-month extension of the previous season in which he gets a chance to face quality hitters in actual game situations.

"A lot of young guys ask me what did I do over there because I'm doing good now," Roberts said. "I say the same thing just working hard."

Pitchers face stiff competition in the Dominican league, which features a host of major league players and top minor league prospects. That makes for a much smoother transition to spring training.

"Winter ball, it's like Triple-A, maybe harder sometimes," Mercedes said. "It's not a big difference there are a lot of major league players in winter ball. And when you come over here, you have the feeling because you've been playing the whole time. It's different when you spend the whole four months off than when you're pitching the whole time. If you keep your body healthy, you are way ahead of everybody."

In Roberts' case, a little extra work with older brother and former pitcher Jorge provided all the more incentive to perform well.

"He killed me," Roberts recalled. "Sometimes I wouldn't be feeling so good, and I'd say I'm not working too much today. He'd say, 'No, you need it, let's go. You don't need rest.' "

Truth be told, some offseason rest is a must for major league pitchers, and Roberts realizes he likely won't appear in as many winter league games this year as he has in the past.

That won't stop him from pitching for Estrellas again, though, provided the Orioles OK it.

"Yeah, I plan to go back," Roberts said. "I don't know if [the Orioles] like it, but I like to play there. Maybe if I throw a lot of innings here, I won't start right away down there. Maybe I'll take one month, two months off. I care about my arm. I don't want to hurt it, because I think my career is starting right now."

Whether or not Roberts or Mercedes is in uniform, it's a given the Orioles will pay close attention to the league this winter, hoping to spot another gem who might duplicate the feats of their previous two finds.

Said Hargrove: "If we do that every year for the next five years, we'll be all right."

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