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Sele Is in Seattle, Orioles Are in Trouble

By Thomas Boswell

Sunday, April 2, 2000; Page D01

One name hovers at the edges of all conversations about the Baltimore Orioles as Opening Day approaches. It's not Cal Ripken, who needs nine hits for 3,000. It's not Mike Mussina, who should have been signed by now but hasn't been. It's not Albert Belle, who's trying to act civil to the press and might hit 45 homers. And it is not even new manager Mike Hargrove, who succeeded spectacularly in Cleveland, season after season, despite pitching staffs with obvious flaws and few stars.

The name is Aaron Sele, an 18-game winner who should be an Oriole but isn't.

Sometimes, your sins find you out. Right now, the Orioles enter the season braced for potential disaster. The best they can hope for from April is survival until injured starter Scott Erickson returns. With Pat Rapp, Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro in the starting rotation, nobody dares dream of more. Their career record is 60-90. A repeat of 1999's abysmal 6-16 start is a clear and present danger.

In April, the Orioles' schedule is indeed cruel. Who's on tap? For starters, the Indians, one of the best-hitting teams ever. What a tone-setter for Hargrove. Then the Tigers, who have added Juan Gonzalez. Don't forget Oakland and Kansas City, whose 3-4-5 hitters each had 100-plus RBI last year. Tampa's even worse. The four players at the heart of its order each had at least 32 homers. When the Orioles leave the hotel, there might be 11 taxis in line, sent by the opposing hitters, to make sure the Orioles' pitchers get to the park intact.

If Sidney Ponson continues to pitch in a funk, leaving Mussina as the lone ray of excellence, a pitching crisis could feed on itself as it did last April, when the Orioles lost games by scores of 15-5, 14-7, 14-8 and 11-10. What mattered most were not the runs allowed, but the runs wasted. The Orioles lost seven April games in which they scored an average of eight runs. Those should be gimme wins, not confidence destroyers.

If the Orioles had locked up Sele when he was ready and anxious to sign, none of this would be threatening to happen again. One pitcher, especially when he's won 18 and 19 games the last two seasons, makes that much difference to the structure of an entire staff. When a pitcher such as Erickson is subtracted (perhaps until May 1), suddenly what seemed sufficient is harshly exposed. The pressure to "take up slack" for Erickson already claimed Jason Johnson, who pitched himself back to Rochester.

This Opening Day could have been vastly different if the Orioles hadn't reneged at the last minute on their four-year, $28 million offer to Sele--I mean, rechecked his shoulder X-rays and altered their contract offer to just three seasons. Baseball people were still buzzing in Florida that the Orioles not only had squandered a valuable free agent for spurious reasons but also had given themselves an ugly reputation among agents for bad-faith dealings.

For perspective, consider the Fab Four at the top of the Yankee's rotation. Last year, Orlando Hernandez, Roger Clemens, David Cone and Andy Pettitte won 57 games. Pretty special, right? In fact, only three teams will enter this season with a Big Four that won more than 57 games last season: Cleveland (62), Atlanta (61) and Seattle (60).

However, one club could have had a rotation that won 63 games last season--more than anybody else in baseball. Yes, the Orioles--if they'd signed Sele. That's how much difference one outstanding arm makes. The Orioles could have sent Mussina, Erickson (a Yankee killer), Sele and Ponson into a New York series and had a credible matchup no matter whom the Yanks sent to the hill.

Ironically, the Mariners are now one of the few teams with a formidable four because Sele fell in their laps like a gift from heaven. The 6-foot-5, 29-year-old right-hander and his representatives were so peeved they bolted into the arms of ex-Orioles GM Pat Gillick, now with the Mariners, six hours after the Orioles changed their proposal. All pitchers are fragile china. But how often do you get a shot at a big, young durable winner such as Sele, who has started 99 games the previous three years? Mussina has gone to the post only 93 times.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but tossing Rapp, Mercedes and Maduro into the rotation simultaneously means that Hargrove needs to be Thomas Edison. Normally, journeymen such as these three are the sort of underdogs fans find appealing. But can three rise to the occasion simultaneously? What are the odds?

In baseball, almost every situation has the potential to give birth to its opposite. If the Orioles suddenly discover unlikely April heroes, then, when Erickson returns, they could have considerable confidence and camaraderie. Despite a 13-15 Florida record, the Orioles did offer glimmers of improvement, especially in the (gasp) bullpen, which might be adequate, if the starters can get to it.

Short periods of time defy prediction in this game of chemistry and momentum. One month can be a very short time if a team gets hot. Unfortunately, for the Orioles, this April probably will feel more like an eternity. Ponson's spring earned run average was nearly 7.00. Rapp often is just a five-inning pitcher. And, in their final appearances, Mercedes and Maduro faltered. What a time to remember who you are.

The schedule says the Orioles open their season Monday against the Indians. But, in a sense, that's not true. Mussina pitches the opener. He's the Orioles' glorious aberration. The season truly will arrive on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, when Ponson, Rapp and Mercedes face some of the most feared hitters in baseball.

Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Gonzalez, Tony Clark and Dean Palmer constitute quite a reality check. The Orioles might discover, in just one week, how much they do, or don't, miss The Arm That Got Away.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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