- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Coming off a 63-98 season, their worst in 13 years, the Baltimore Orioles opened spring training yesterday with plenty of questions to be answered.

Such is life when you've finished fourth in the five-team American League East each of the last four seasons and are expected to make it five in a row. It doesn't help that the icon of your franchise has retired after 20 seasons in uniform nor that your winter shopping spree netted one free agent and one significant trade.

Camp officially opened at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday when pitchers and catchers reported (position players will join them Tuesday), with much to be determined over the next six weeks. Among the questions:

cCan Scott Erickson return to his old form?

It has been a year and a half since Erickson last pitched for the Orioles. He says he's fully ready to return from elbow ligament replacement surgery. In fact, Erickson wanted to return to the rotation last September, but with the team well out of the pennant race, there was no need to bring him back.

Since then, he has had one clear goal in mind to be on the mound April 1 at Camden Yards against the New York Yankees on Opening Day. And the Orioles are fairly confident Erickson can anchor the starting rotation throughout the season.

Recovery from Tommy John surgery, though, is never easy, especially at 34. By the time Baltimore breaks camp at the end of next month, Erickson needs to have proven to the coaching staff that he's back for good.

cWho's the closer?

The back end of the Baltimore bullpen was a revolving door last season, from Ryan Kohlmeier to Mike Trombley to Buddy Groom to Willis Roberts. Manager Mike Hargrove would like for one to step to the forefront, and the man he would most like to see do it is Roberts.

An obscure minor league free agent signed last year, Roberts came out of nowhere and spent the majority of the season in the starting rotation. By August, the organization deemed the flamboyant right-hander closer material. Roberts has command of three major league pitches fastball, slider and splitter and his stuff is electric. But the 26-year-old Dominican was wildly inconsistent last year and needs to learn how to maintain his composure on the mound if he is to land and keep the closer's job.

The job is not yet his, though. Several candidates will make their pitch this spring, each with strong points.

Jorge Julio, 23, made a good impression on Hargrove last year in two brief stints in Baltimore. The flame-throwing right-hander has the raw talent to close, but he may not be ready just yet.

Other candidates include Kris Foster, whose fastball approaches triple digits, left-hander John Parrish, who has reportedly upped his velocity to the mid-90s, and if all else fails, Groom, the reliable, veteran left-hander.

cErickson, Johnson, Ponson, Towers and … ?

There aren't many wide-open battles in camp this spring, but the final spot in the starting rotation certainly qualifies; as many as eight candidates are in the mix.

Right-handers Sean Douglass and Rick Bauer each pitched out of the Orioles' rotation last September with mixed results. Both are tall (6-foot-6), young (Bauer is 25, Douglass is 22) and have plenty of upside.

Australian John Stephens was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2001, dominating the competition at Class AA Bowie with an 11-4 record, 1.84 ERA and a 130-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Stephens likely will start the season at Class AAA Rochester, but he'll join Baltimore by summer, as Josh Towers did last year.

Often overlooked among his younger counterparts, 27-year-old Calvin Maduro was a strength for the Orioles last season, making 12 starts and pitching effectively out of the bullpen. Hargrove has always been a fan of the Aruban right-hander.

Other notables for the final rotation spot include a pair of young pitchers who missed last season with arm injuries: left-hander Matt Riley and right-hander Luis Rivera.

•Who's up first?

The Orioles made clear their intention this winter of acquiring a proven leadoff hitter after releasing Brady Anderson. They found no one, leaving that crucial spot in the batting order open. The club has long wanted to see second baseman Jerry Hairston adjust his game to become a top-of-the-order guy, but Hairston's free-swinging approach at the plate and urge to go for the fences must be toned down if he is to make it.

Should Hairston not pull it off, Baltimore has few viable alternatives. Newly acquired center fielder Chris Singleton has limited experience leading off but is better suited for batting second.

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