Hoiles, Melvin, Orioles caught in win-win situation Rookie, veteran will share playing time behind plate

February 23, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARASOTA, Fla. -- This is the spring that promising catcher Chris Hoiles has dreamed of since he signed his first professional contract, so why is it that veteran Bob Melvin seems like a guy without a care in the world?

It's not so complicated, really. There's room in the Baltimore Orioles lineup for both of them, now that switch-hitting Mickey Tettleton has taken up residence in another city. Hoiles and Melvin are going to compete for a job this spring, but both of them probably will win.

The Orioles recently handed Melvin a two-year contract, which was the club's way of saying that he was more than just Tettleton's backup the past couple of years. He was always the better defensive player, and now he should get a chance to show he can make a significant offensive contribution.

Hoiles has been waiting in the wings since he joined the Orioles organization in 1988, but now he's almost certain to spend the entire season at the major-league level and likely to get substantial playing time behind the plate.

"That just makes me want to work harder," Hoiles said. "Before, there was always a question of how seriously they were looking at me, no matter what I did. Now, they're looking at me to be ready for Baltimore, so I know what I'm working for."

He still has to prove himself. He still has to show he can hit major-league pitching. He still has to display the kind of offensive production that made him one of the best hitters in the International League last year. What he doesn't have to do is show that he's a better player than Melvin.

"That's not the way I look at it," Hoiles said. "Bob and I are going to be teammates. Anything I can learn from him, I want to learn from him. My objective is to watch him and learn. It doesn't bother me that he's going to play a lot. I'm just happy to be here with him."

Manager Frank Robinson appears likely to cut the playing time right down the middle this spring. But if Hoiles gets more, it will be because he is the less proven player, not because he is the catcher of choice.

"I already know what Bob can do," Robinson said. "We're going to make a conscious effort to have Chris catch everybody who has a chance to make the club so that he can familiarize himself with them. But they'll both get playing time. We'll probably start one and let the other one pick him up late in the game, then start the other one the next day."

If Hoiles ends up getting more attention this spring, it still seems likely that Melvin will get more playing time during the regular season. He appeared in 93 games last year and had 301 at-bats. Robinson said yesterday that he'll play more than that in 1991.

"I don't know exactly how we'll use them, but Bob's playing time figures to go up for the simple fact that they both bat right-handed," Robinson said. "Mickey [who usually played against right-handers] took a lot more at-bats away from him last year than Hoiles will this year."

Melvin assumes nothing. He has never been in a position to take his playing time for granted. His 93 game appearances last year were a career high, but there is a good chance he could improve on that in 1991.

"I want to play as much as I can," he said, "but I've never come to spring training and had someone say the job is mine. I'm just going to treat this like any other year."

There are other catchers in camp who might figure into the equation, but no one who figures to push Hoiles back to the minor leagues. Veteran Ernie Whitt has come in for a tryout and Jeff Tackett, 25, was added to the 40-man roster early in the off-season. Neither is expected to play a regular role this year, though Whitt could catch on as a No. 3 catcher and a pinch hitter.

He is 38 years old and he's coming off a brutal season in Atlanta, but hopes to rebound from a dislocated thumb and keep his major-league career alive.

"I feel there is an opportunity here," Whitt said. "They were very open with me. They told me they were going with Chris and Bob and that I was coming in as the third catcher. But I'm optimistic that I can make the ballclub. I wouldn't have come if I didn't think so."

The Orioles wouldn't have invited him if they didn't think it was a possibility. The invitation was extended in part because Hoiles came out of the 1990 season with a sore shoulder, but Robinson doesn't mind having another veteran catcher around this spring to work with the club's young pitching staff. He might even take three catchers into the regular season.

"I could foresee that, but it would take some maneuvering," he said. "He brings a lot of experience. He can't do anything but help our pitching staff and I hope he can help Bob and Hoiles grow."

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