- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Syd Thrift and Mike Hargrove love to boast about the bevy of young "power" pitchers currently stocked in the Baltimore Orioles' system. Ask the vice president of baseball operations or the manager what gives them the most reason to feel optimistic about the franchise's future and both will start rattling off names like Willis Roberts, Jorge Julio and Kris Foster.
These are young pitchers with fastballs in the upper 90s, biting sliders and split-finger fastballs the kind of stuff that makes a pitcher an instant candidate to be a major league closer.
Trouble is, none of them is quite ready for the job.
"I don't know that we'll have one guy that we name the closer going into the season," Hargrove said.
It's not that Roberts, Julio and Foster don't have the skills necessary to enter a one-run ballgame in the ninth inning and mow the opposition down in order. It's just tough to put a guy in that situation who is 26, 23 or 27 their respective ages with little-to-no big league experience.
"When you're looking at a closer, you've got to be very careful, especially with young people," Hargrove said. "It's such a demanding position, such a stressful job that you don't want to end up setting a kid back in his development by putting him in that role too soon."
It is for that reason that Hargrove and Thrift would like to acquire a veteran closer while the younger guys develop. But the Orioles said the same thing during the height of the winter free agent shopping spree, and while they did make half-hearted attempts to sign Jason Isringhausen and Jeff Shaw, they came to spring training with no significant additions to the bullpen.
There are few remaining alternatives, and should a move be made, it will most likely be via the trade route. The St. Louis Cardinals, who wound up signing Isringhausen in December, have a bullpen overflowing with veteran arms (such as former closers Dave Veres and Mike Timlin, who went to St. Louis from Baltimore in a trade two seasons ago), but they are unlikely to want to make a deal unless they get considerable value in return.
That probably will force the Orioles to develop a closer from within.
"We're kind of going to take what we're dealt," pitching coach Mark Wiley said. "We're going to do some things during the spring to help us make the decision. But the bottom line is, we're going to have to have someone back there. Hopefully someone will take charge of it."
The most experienced of the young relievers though the term "experienced" must be used loosely is Roberts, who made a splash last year as a rookie in the starting rotation before being moved to the bullpen. The flamboyant Dominican right-hander picked up six saves late in the season but was wildly inconsistent, leaving his future role in doubt.
"If things fell in place for him, he could be a closer," Hargrove said. "But right now he's a good set-up man. I certainly don't want to close the door on the possibility of him being a closer, because he could be."
Roberts, who started for Estrellas of the Dominican Winter League, said he would like to be told he is Baltimore's closer but is more concerned with taking the next step as a major league pitcher.
"I don't think too much about being the closer," he said. "As long as I get a chance to pitch. My job is to get better every day."
Julio may have the most tools to be a big league closer including three equally effective "out" pitches but he is by far the youngest and least experienced of the bunch. He was clobbered in his first two appearances with the Orioles last year but made great strides as the season wore on, not allowing an earned run in 13 of his last 16 outings.
"I think Jorge Julio has the stuff to be a closer, I really do," Hargrove said. "Is it this year? It may be. And it may be that he takes over that spot and goes with it for the next 15 years. But we want to be real careful in making that decision."
Said Wiley: "He's the youngest. But even being considered for it is saying something when you're that young and don't have the experience. So there's some special things about him that make him interesting."
Foster was the key acquisition in last July's trade that sent reliever Mike Trombley to the Los Angeles Dodgers. An overpowering right-hander whose fastball occasionally reaches triple digits, he has only seven games of major league experience and therefore is fighting to make the Opening Day roster, let alone thinking about closing.
And if all else fails, the Orioles can use 36-year-old left-hander Buddy Groom, who actually led the staff with 11 saves in 2001 but is best utilized in a set-up role.
Given the choice, though, the Orioles would like nothing more than for one of the young arms to pitch like a time-tested veteran.
"It takes time to learn," Wiley said. "And whoever learns it the fastest and can give us confidence that they're farther along on that trail, I'm sure they'll have the inside track."


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