MIAMI, FEB. 22 -- They sent rookie starters to the mound 18 more times than any other team in the major leagues last season, and while they were suffering their nightly drubbings, the unspoken message of the Baltimore Orioles in 1987 was: Our kid pitchers are in accelerated classes, and we'll have to be patient.
Someday, they said, we'll have the last laugh.
Someday has arrived under a bright South Florida sun, and like last season, many of the Orioles' hopes are tied to the success of their young starters.
"They all have the talent to win in the major leagues," Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "Now, it's a matter of them going out and doing it."
The difference this year is that they'll have more competition. Mike Boddicker has a spot in the rotation, as does newcomer Mike Morgan. The other three spots appear to be open, but veteran Jay Tibbs, acquired from Montreal last week, wants one and so does swing man Dave Schmidt.
The Orioles have also gotten extremely good reports on Jose Mesa, Jose Bautista and Oswald Peraza this winter and have said that all of them will be given a chance to win a job. So while they say they haven't given up on last year's rookies -- Eric Bell, Jeff Ballard and John Habyan, who were 18-28 with a 5.46 ERA -- they've tried to rig a safety net against one or all of them failing.
Which the players know. Bell, Ballard and Habyan are all 24 years old. They all tasted a bit of success and lots of failure last summer and, despite the other moves, all have an inside track to opening day jobs. All they have to do is get batters out when the Orioles begin a 28-game exhibition schedule on March 5.
"It's time to do it," Habyan said. "The stage of saying, 'We're still young and learning' is over with. When you first come to camp, you use that to fall back on when you're sent down. Now, to heck with that."
Of the three, Habyan probably has the most reason to be hopeful. For one thing, he has a 90-mph fastball, a big plus for an organization that again is emphasizing fastballs over finesse. He also appears to have perfected a straight change-up, which should make his slider-fastball combination better.
By a lot of measuring sticks, he was better than his 6-7 record and 4.80 ERA. He held opponents to a .248 batting average, which was 29 points better than the staff average. And while he had some terrible games, he also had some terrific ones. His best was on July 22, when he retired 19 straight hitters for a victory in relief.
That game began a stretch of five good ones when he went 3-0 and allowed one earned run in 22 innings. But he also made a lot of bad pitches and was awful as a starter -- 2-7 with a 5.93 ERA.
"I think the biggest thing was that I got comfortable being in the big leagues," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes, but I think I got away from making the same mistakes twice. I think I've got enough pitches to set up my fastball, and I really believe I belong here."
Bell believes the same thing. He came to camp last season with a job all but assured after Storm Davis was traded. He ended up with 29 starts and was 10-13 with a 5.45 ERA. On May 25, he was 5-1 with a 3.94 ERA, but was terrible after that, going 5-12 with a 6.04 ERA.
He was put on a strenuous offseason conditioning program and has shown up looking bigger and feeling stronger.
Ballard's career started late because he spent four years at Stanford and earned a degree in geophysics. But he made up for it with a two-year sprint through the farm system. He was the Orioles' fourth-round pick in the June 1985 draft, and on May 9, 1987, he made his major league debut. His 2-8 record and 6.59 ERA say he was rushed.
"I went through so fast that I didn't have time to reflect on why I was having success," he said. "When I was sent back to Rochester in June, I spent a lot of time thinking. I'd gotten up so fast by pitching outside, outside, outside, then coming inside for a pitch or two. I didn't do that here."
Don Aase threw 10 minutes without pain today and said, "It felt good. No problems so far." . . . Mesa was to get his visa today in the Dominican Republic and practice Tuesday.