FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 20 -- Depending on whom you ask, the news that Baltimore Orioles starter Kris Benson will attempt a four-week rehabilitation program on his ailing shoulder is either a start to his preparation for the 2007 season, or delaying the inevitable: season-ending surgery.

A third examination of Benson's partially torn rotator cuff, performed Monday by famed orthopedic specialist James Andrews, confirmed the tear. But Andrews thought Benson's season might be saved by an aggressive rehabilitation program.

The Orioles also seem optimistic that Benson, who will join the team on Wednesday, could pitch again this season. Gregg Clifton, Benson's agent, believes rehabilitation is, at best, a long shot.

"There is a tear, it's an undisputed fact," Clifton said. "It's significant enough, but Dr. Andrews gave Kris a small amount of hope that surgery still can be avoided by doing, as he put it, an aggressive rehab for the next few weeks, and we'll assess where we're at, and if no progress has been made then, he'll probably recommend surgery at that point."

Said Orioles Vice President Jim Duquette: "Our thinking all along was that this needed to be the case. He has the right under the basic agreement to seek a second opinion and then we worked through a third opinion. Our whole feeling from the very beginning was that is the way we thought it should go."

Benson felt pain in the shoulder while beginning his offseason throwing program this winter and sought a medical examination from Orioles team doctors at the end of January. An MRI exam showed a tear in his right rotator cuff. The team suggested rehab, but Benson sought a second opinion from David Altchek, the New York Mets' team doctor, who suggested surgery. The two sides then agreed on a third examination by Andrews.

"There are several pitchers that Andrews had expressed to us . . . that have this type of injury and successfully rehab from it," Duquette said. "His feeling was to go ahead and get it started as soon as possible."

Said Clifton: "I wasn't present in the room yesterday, but I know it was described [as a long shot] to Kris by Dr. Andrews. Obviously, if he can avoid surgery, he wants to do it. Am I optimistic, on a personal level? No, I'm not optimistic, because I have a lot of faith in Dr. Altchek, who examined him last week. He's not a physician/surgeon who in any way, shape or form likes to do surgery on pitchers. And I've known him for a very long extended period of time."

Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez successfully rehabbed a similar injury and Los Angeles Angels pitcher Bartolo Colon is attempting a similar recovery this season. Last season, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder, also a Clifton client, attempted a similar type of rehabilitation, but eventually had surgery.

"Obviously," Clifton said, "Kris is kind of searching for the needle in the haystack and hoping for anything to avoid surgery and be able to participate this season."

One issue that remains unclear is to what extent the injury is a carryover from last season, when Benson pitched with some pain in his shoulder. No major injury was diagnosed during Benson's exit physical at the end of the season.

"It's not an issue that just materialized from the end of the season, the tear I'm talking about," Duquette said.

But Clifton said the injury seems far worse now than it did then.

"I think the difference now is that when he's had the pain in the past -- let's say last year -- it was already 150 or 160 innings into the season," Clifton said. "Here's a situation where he had not done anything, at least from my perspective, to aggravate it. It wasn't like he was out there throwing games. He was just preparing for the season when the pain returned, and I think that's what was of great concern to him."

Though there seem to be conflicting opinions on the severity of the injury, Duquette said there was no ill will between Benson and the team.

"We're expecting he's going to come in and give it the effort that he normally does as he's preparing to get ready for pitching," Duquette said. "We don't have any reason to expect that he wouldn't."