- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Orioles determined the price for free-agent starting pitchers to be too high this winter, so they opted to develop their own young talent.

Such abstinence might be prudent in the long run, but will it enable Baltimore to snap a run of seven straight losing seasons?

The Orioles begin formulating an answer to that question today, when they hold their first spring training workout for pitchers and catchers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Position players, including newcomer Sammy Sosa, are not expected to begin before Thursday.

Sosa should enhance an attack that produced an American League-best 1,614 hits last season, and the bullpen hopes to benefit from the addition of free agents Steve Kline and Steve Reed. So if the Orioles are to make some noise in the AL East, they need more production from essentially the same starting staff that last year went 52-58.

Executive vice president Jim Beattie attempted to sign free agent pitcher Carl Pavano, sought to trade for Oakland’s Tim Hudson and debated the merit of spending big bucks for Jaret Wright, Matt Clement and Eric Milton.

All of them ended up elsewhere, in part because Beattie figured he had a stable of hurlers with the potential to be as good, if not better, than all of the above.

“More than anything, I feel lucky that we have the young pitchers that allowed us not to have to spend that type of money,” Beattie said. “The depth of that young pitching is going to serve us well. Those are the guys that are going to step up, and in many cases be better than some of the guys that are signing those big contracts. We feel very fortunate we’re in the situation that we are.”

Pavano and Hudson certainly would have been welcome, but Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli and pitching coach Ray Miller are content to pick the best five out of Sidney Ponson (11-15 in 2004), Rodrigo Lopez (14-9), Daniel Cabrera (12-8), Matt Riley (3-4), Erik Bedard (6-10), Bruce Chen (2-1), Eric DuBose (4-6) and Kurt Ainsworth (0-1).

DuBose and Ainsworth made the rotation during spring training last year, but arm problems sent both to the disabled list. Now they’re back to reclaim their jobs, which should make for an interesting spring.

“You have seven, eight guys competing for five spots. You’ve got some competition, which in a way we didn’t have last year,” Mazzilli said. “We lost DuBose and Ainsworth for just about the whole year, really, and to get them back in the picture is going to make us better. I like competition in spring training. It builds character.”

Mazzilli hopes Ponson shows the form he displayed in the second half last year, when he went 8-3 after a 3-12 start. The second-year manager also expects improvement from Cabrera, who led all AL rookies in wins, and Bedard, who issued a staff-high 71 walks.

Mazzilli also is eager to see if Riley is ready to grow up and make the commitment necessary to pitch effectively in the big leagues.

Miller, who took over for Mark Wiley last June, expects big things from a starting staff that reduced its ERA from 5.94 to 5.05 under his direction. Miller has no complaints about Beattie’s reluctance to shell out big money for free agents, in part because the addition of Sosa means the staff will have more margin for error.

“You go out and get Sammy and improve the offense, a guy who’s going to play every day,” Miller said. “You always want pitching, as much as you can get, but I think the pitching depth here is good. These kids believe in themselves, and if we can keep it simple and carry on what we did last year, we’ll be plenty good.”

Mazzilli agreed.

“Our pitching is better than people think it is, no question,” he said. “How the rotation goes, I don’t know yet. We’ve got three or four other guys who were starters who are looking to fit in. It’s a good problem to have.”

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