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Orioles Insider: Benson Believes His Best is Yet to Come

May 16, 2006

By Louis Berney
Memo to Jim Duquette, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations: keep the phone lines open with your former employer, the New York Mets. It could be the quickest way to improve your team's fortunes.

The Orioles haven't fared particularly well in the trade market the past decade or so. Except, that is, when they deal with the Mets.

Kris Benson is off to a 5-3 start for the O's. (Sabina Moran/PressBox)

The slickest trade the Orioles have pulled off in recent years was the 2000 swap of Mike Bordick to the Mets for Melvin Mora. Not only has Mora become a star since joining the Orioles, but Baltimore also squirreled Bordick back to Camden Yards during the 2000-2001 offseason.

And this winter, Duquette, who seems to be holding the front office reins more tightly than his reputed superior, general manager Mike Flanagan, engineered another cool deal with the Mets. He acquired starting right-hander Kris Benson for reliever Jorge Julio. Julio had grown into something of an unpleasant wart on the Orioles. The hard-throwing young right-hander had been Baltimore's closer in 2004 but was unreliable and lost the job to B. J. Ryan. In his last three seasons in Baltimore Julio compiled an unseemly 4.98 ERA, won five and lost 17, blew 14 saves in 72 opportunities, and walked almost one batter every two innings. At the same time, some of his teammates had grown disgruntled with his behavior. So the Orioles were happy to unload him on the Mets. And Met fans quickly turned against the reliever when he got off to a dreadful start this year. He has settled down somewhat in the last two weeks, but his ERA of 5.71 (through May 14) is not going to cut it as a set-up man for a team that hopes to reach the playoffs this year. Chants of "Bring Back Benson" already have ricocheted through the seats of Shea Stadium this spring.

Benson has been the Orioles' best starter over the first six weeks of the season. In fact, he was the only member of the Oriole rotation to pick up a victory in May (he's won two), at least through mid-month.

Benson was 5-3 in nine starts. And in seven of those nine outings he has he held opponents to three earned runs or fewer. Benson's ERA of 4.38 -- the best among Oriole starters -- is bloated by one horrible outing in Boston. Take away that one start and his ERA would be 3.00 (which would rank as fifth best in the American League).

At the age of 31, Benson finally could be on the verge of becoming the pitcher that many expected of him when the Pirates made him the first overall selection in the 1996 First Year Player Draft. He had been a standout hurler at Clemson University and was touted as a can't-miss major league star. But although he pitched decently during four-and-a-half years in Pittsburgh and one-and-a-half seasons with the Mets, Benson never was the dominating pitcher that many baseball people thought he would be.

The soft-spoken Benson believes, however, that his best days as a major leaguer are ahead of him. He calls himself "a young 31" and points out that his development as a major league pitcher was hampered by two serious injuries since his major league career began in 1999. He missed the entire 2001 season because of right elbow problems that led to reconstructive surgery. And he sat out for nearly three months at the end of the 2003 season because of tendonitis in his throwing shoulder.

Those episodes, he says, interrupted his efforts to learn and grow as a pitcher in the big leagues. Benson says he now is making up for that lost time.

He learned and perfected a new way of throwing a changeup this year. The pitch, he believes, has enhanced his repertoire and makes him a more effective pitcher than he's been in the past.

The Orioles appear to be the beneficiary of Benson's maturation as a big league pitcher.

So, Mr. Duquette, why not give a call to the Mets sometime soon. They have a pitcher by the name of Pedro Martinez you might be vaguely interested in. Maybe you could wheedle him away for a minor league infielder or two.

Issue 1.4: May 18, 2006