CHICAGO -- Welcome to the worst-case scenario. Orioles third baseman Craig Worthington is batting .152. Hitting coach Tom McCraw claims he's distracted by his future. Yet manager Frank Robinson insists he will continue to play.
The scary thing is, Robinson has no other choice, not 12 games into the season. He started Leo Gomez at third last night, but only to keep him sharp. Before the Orioles' 10-4 loss to Chicago, Robinson spent nearly 30 minutes passionately defending Worthington's right to lose his job.
Not that the manager is unaware of the brewing controversy. "People are starting to make something out of it," he conceded. "It's only natural when you have two talented people competing for the same job. People will start to take sides."
The tendency is to pick Gomez, but the situation, in Robinson's words, is "very delicate" -- far too delicate for a knee-jerk reaction. Worthington, 26, is at the crossroads of his career, a career that held great promise when he led major-league rookies with 70 RBIs in 1989.
Both players had excellent springs, creating this mess.
Problem No. 1: Robinson can only be so patient so long, especially with his offense stagnant. Randy Milligan and Mike Devereaux also are batting under .200, and the three catchers have combined for one RBI.
Worthington isn't the only culprit, but because of Gomez, he's the most visible.
Problem No. 2: Robinson can't bench Worthington without fully committing to Gomez. Neither will benefit playing part-time; right now, Worthington is frazzled playing full-time. What's more, the moment Robinson makes the switch, Worthington becomes virtually impossible to trade.
Problem No. 3: The issue is too unsettling to linger into the summer. The Orioles recognize this, and a club source said they are again pursuing a deal. Worthington, of course, was available all winter. But his market value declined after an off-year, and it's even lower now.
Meanwhile, Robinson has other concerns. He'll eventually recall Bob Milacki as his 10th pitcher, forcing the demotion of a position player. Tim Hulett, who hit a home run last night, is the obvious choice, but only if Robinson is comfortable with Juan Bell as his sole utility infielder.
Otherwise, Gomez might be in trouble -- that is, if he isn't starting at third. "I have to worry about 25 players," Robinson said. "People ask, 'What's that have to do with Worthington and Gomez?' It's chemistry. The way you handle it, when you handle it, how you handle it -- it can be the difference between keeping a team together or losing a team."
His only choice, then, is to wait, hoping the situation will resolve itself. As Robinson put it, "I still think you have to give whoever is playing a reasonable chance to get himself straightened out without burying himself to the extent where he's no help to the ballclub."
Yes, it's too early to pass judgment on Worthington. But he's already 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position -- this, after dropping from .313 to .196 last year -- and he has only one homer since last July 28. McCraw believes he's not battling pitchers, he's battling Gomez.
"I don't know if he really feels secure, that the third base job is really his," the hitting coach said. "He responded well in spring training. But he still doesn't feel that he has the job locked up. The thought enters your mind. You really don't know. Then you get an 0-fer and it compounds."
Worthington disputes McCraw's assessment, but only to a point. He entered the season with a .204 lifetime average for April and May, and he said, "What's bothering me is not getting off to a fast start." Still, he won't deny thinking about Gomez, who is 5-for-20 (.250).
"Frank said, it's my job, it's my job," Worthington said. "But you always have it in the back of your head that he's still there. You can't let it affect you. Whatever they throw at you, you have to block it out.
"I've got to re-establish myself in the big leagues," he continued. "I've got to turn it up a notch, eliminate doubts in peoples' minds, especially mine. That's the bad thing, when you have doubts in your mind. I'm not to that point yet. If you do that, you're dead."
Worthington isn't dead yet, but he doesn't sound too confident, does he? The Orioles once argued a third base competition was a problem they'd love to have. Now they've got it, and they're paralyzed. Not the best position, for a team that's 4-8.