- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Like any other major league manager, Mike Hargrove would be happy to have an established veteran closer in camp this spring. The Baltimore Orioles, of course, have no such person.

Which is fine with Hargrove … for now.

"I don't have much choice," he said. "I think we'd all like to have a closer, because it makes everybody's job easier and more productive. But with the people we have available, I think we'll find somebody ready to do the job every night."

Hargrove has said the Orioles likely won't break camp with a designated closer.

There is always the possibility of a last-minute trade or free agent signing, however remote. The Orioles were approached recently by the Florida Marlins regarding right-hander Antonio Alfonseca, who led the National League in saves two years ago, but the asking price possibly left-hander B.J. Ryan and Alfonseca's questionable health make a deal unlikely.

Instead, Baltimore will open the season with a bullpen of right-hander Willis Roberts, left-handers Buddy Groom and Ryan and probably 23-year-old right-hander Jorge Julio. Ryan, who appeared in 61 games last season, again will be used primarily in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, which means Roberts, Groom and Julio will get the bulk of closing opportunities.

"They'll have specific roles, but we ask them to be agile enough mentally to be able to adjust as situations present themselves," Hargrove said. "Ideally, you like to have everybody knowing this is your spot, this is your role. To do that, you usually need one really good closer to solidify that and build back from that."

It's not that the Orioles don't have anyone with closer abilities. They just don't have anyone with those abilities who is ready to assume the job permanently.

Roberts, 26, gained attention as a rookie last season, first in the starting rotation, then later out of the back end of the bullpen. But he converted just six saves and appeared only in 10 save situations, so the Orioles still don't fully know if he can handle the pressure that comes with the job.

Groom, 36, has far more experience than anyone else and he led the staff with 11 saves in 2001. But he is far more valuable in a left-handed set-up role than as a closer, and the Orioles would prefer to keep him there.

A wild card in the mix is 27-year-old right-hander Kris Foster, acquired last summer from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Foster has an explosive fastball that often approaches triple digits, but he has been wildly inconsistent in the past and this spring. He gave up three runs and four hits in one inning yesterday as the Orioles lost to his former team 6-5 and was tagged for six runs and seven hits in his only other outing.

Though the Orioles won't make any firm decisions on Foster with more than two weeks remaining in Florida, his unsightly 40.50 ERA doesn't bode well.

"Today wasn't a big plus for him, if you're going to try to keep score," Hargrove said. "But this certainly didn't set him back or hurt him."

That leaves Julio, a young fireballer with three major-league "out" pitches (fastball, slider, splitter) and a world of upside. Virtually everyone in the Orioles' organization believes the Venezuelan righty has the potential to become a top-flight closer in the big leagues, but the club wants to be careful not to rush him.

Acquired in December 2000 from the Montreal Expos for third baseman Ryan Minor, Julio had never pitched above Class A before last season but still wound up posting a 3.80 ERA in 18 games with the Orioles. He entered yesterday's game in the ninth inning, with the Orioles holding a 6-5 lead, and retired the side, although two of the outs were on hard-hit line drives.

"Is Jorge going to be our closer this year? I don't know," Hargrove said. "But the more situations we can get him into like that, where the game's on the line and he has to get people out, then the better pitcher he's going to become. He has great stuff. He just needs confidence, and he needs to experience success."

Perhaps just as important as his physical tools, Julio appears to have the mental tools to handle the role. A husband and father of two at 23, he has impressed vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift with the knowledge and maturity of an older player.

"I don't feel pressure," Julio said. "Whatever job the manager has for me is fine. I'm ready for the big leagues."


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