The Orioles announced yesterday that they have invited 13 non-roster players to spring training. And the only one who will come to camp without a contract may have the best chance of making the team.
Ernie Whitt is one of three catchers among the eight position players who will report to Sarasota next month. The other two are Doug Robbins and Mike Eberle, highly regarded young receivers who will be in camp mainly for the exposure and to help handle the early load of pitchers.
While Robbins and Eberle can be expected to eventually duel Jeff Tackett for the regular job at Rochester, Whitt has a chance to stick with the big-league club primarily because he is a lefthanded hitter who could be valuable off the bench. The Orioles' primary catchers, Bob Melvin and Chris Hoiles, are righthanded hitters, and the club could use a veteran lefthanded hitter on the bench.
The other position players invited are outfielders Tony Chance and Chito Martinez and infielders Pat Austin, Rodney Lofton and Shane Turner. All but Martinez, a minor-league free agent, played in the Orioles' farm system last year.
Martinez, a 25-year-old lefthanded-hitting outfielder, hit 21 home runs with Kansas City's Triple A Omaha team last year. Like Whitt, being a lefthanded hitter won't hurt his chances.
Chance hit 17 home runs at Triple A Rochester last year and has an outside shot. Austin hit .307 at Double A Hagerstown. Lofton played at three levels, spending most of his time at Hagerstown, where he hit .272 and stole 24 bases. Turner hit .282 and played four positions in 86 games at Rochester.
Robbins, who caught for the Olympic team in 1988, hit .242 for Hagerstown last year, while Eberle played only 57 games splitting time between Hagerstown (.250) and Rochester (.233).
Of the five additional pitchers invited to camp, three are lefthanders and therefore get automatic consideration. But the most intriguing possibility is Mike Mussina, last year's No. 1 draft choice.
Mussina, who the Orioles hope will follow in the footsteps of their last two No. 1 picks -- Gregg Olson and Ben McDonald -- was 3-0 (1.49 ERA) in seven games at Hagerstown and 0-0 (1.35 ERA) in two games at Rochester.
Though he has only 55 2/3 innings of professional experience, Mussina is considered a possibility to join the Orioles' starting rotation some time this year.
The other righthander is Todd Frohwirth, a minor-league free agent who was 9-7 with a 3.04 earned run average with Philadelphia's Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre team.
The lefthanders include Daniel Boone, a refugee from the ill-fated Senior League who was 11-5 at Rochester and pitched in four games for the Orioles last September, Paul Kilgus, a 29-year-old veteran of three major-league teams who was obtained from Toronto for righthander Mickey Westin, and Arthur Rhodes, a highly touted 21-year-old.