Orioles Hope Rleal Deal Turns Into a Bargain
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., March 28 -- It took a trip through rambling dirt roads, through thick sugar cane brush swaying in the soft tropical breeze, to find him. In a small town in the middle of the Caribbean called Ingenio Quisqueya, in a tiny, crumbling stadium, a group of children play all day.
And that is how he began his baseball life. He is tall and muscular now, but reliever Sendy Rleal was just a thin little boy who liked to chuck the ball all day when he was discovered by a Baltimore Orioles scout. He rose quickly through the minors until finally, he was asked to join the major league team for spring training.
A complete unknown five weeks ago, the 25-year-old Rleal (pronounced ray-AL) is on the verge of making the big league team -- and jumbling the bullpen picture. Players like Rleal often force managers to scramble their roster of relievers. They make general managers think they can ignore their bullpens and splurge to plug other holes in their lineups and rotation. They turn the role of reliever into the most nomadic in baseball.
"I don't think there's a position like it," reliever Jim Brower said.
It is a matter of economics. When a player like Rleal succeeds, teams like the Orioles can afford to bypass veterans such as Jeff Nelson, who only days ago was released by the St. Louis Cardinals but has garnered no interest from Baltimore. If Rleal makes the team, and at this point it seems all but certain, he will cost the Orioles only $327,000 -- the league minimum.
On Tuesday, the Orioles placed reliever Aaron Rakers, who will miss the season after shoulder surgery, on the 60-day disabled list to open a spot on their 40-man roster for Brower. The 33-year-old will be asked to serve as a stabilizing force in a bullpen that will likely feature two youngsters, Rleal and 24-year-old closer Chris Ray. Brower said he turned down several guaranteed contracts to sign with the Orioles because of new pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who had helped him reclaim his career last year with Atlanta.
"When I came in here I had a good idea if I threw the way I can then I would be on the team," Brower said.
Incredibly, when the Orioles open the regular season Monday against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, not one reliever will remain from the 2005 Opening Day roster. Todd Williams is the lone bullpen holdover, but he'll begin the season on the disabled list with a strained calf.
"It's one of the positions where every year every team seems [rotate] players," Brower said. "That's just one of those dynamics."
The Orioles opened another spot on their 40-man roster by putting catcher Geronimo Gil on waivers. That spot is expected to be taken by John Halama or Eddy Rodriguez, both pitchers. Again, economics could play a factor; Rodriguez also would be paid the league minimum.
But it is Rleal who has appeared practically out of nowhere. Last season he had a 2.04 ERA for Class AA Bowie and saved 16 games after Ray was called up to the majors. A wicked change-up has made him a sensation this spring. Though Rleal throws 91-93 mph, relatively tame by major league standards, he deceives hitters with the change-up, a pitch he can throw for a strike in any count. Rleal is fearless with the pitch.
"It doesn't matter what the count is, I'll throw it," Rleal said.
Rleal remembers a stint last year when he entered consecutive games against the Akron Aeros with the bases loaded. The first night Rleal worked the count full to a hitter before striking him out with a change-up. The next night Rleal did the same thing.
Rleal's potential has put Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo in a bind this spring.
"It's been one of the toughest things to put together," Perlozzo said of his bullpen.