Orioles deal Hoiles clear shot at success

February 23, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles traded power-hitting catcher Mickey Tettleton to the Detroit Tigers a year ago. They traded defensive specialist Bob Melvin to the Kansas City Royals in December. What higher praise could they heap on Chris Hoiles?

His time apparently has come, and he is eager to meet the challenge of a full-time role in the major leagues.

"When I heard that they traded Bob, I assumed that my role would be increased a little bit," Hoiles said, "and I was happy that it would increase. Every year I have been the starting catcher, I've done a lot better both offensively and defensively playing all the time. I've always been an everyday catcher. I think that has benefited me."

The Orioles obviously think it will benefit the team. Hoiles batted .348 with 18 homers and 56 RBI in less than a full season with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings in 1990. He hit .243 with 11 homers in last year's platoon system. It's time to find out whether his minor-league numbers will translate into major-league stardom.

"We think he's going to be a front-line catcher," general manager Roland Hemond said, "so this will give him an opportunity to do that. We feel he can do the job and there are times when you have to give that opportunity. If you keep prolonging it, he'll end up being a 30-year-old catcher splitting the assignment with somebody."

Melvin was a solid reserve catcher for the Orioles -- so solid, in fact, that the club gave him a two-year contract before the start of the 1991 season. But Hoiles' role increased as the 1991 season progressed, reducing the need for a high-salaried (by Orioles standards) backup.

"Obviously, when you trade a Bob Melvin, you have to have a lot of confidence in Hoiles," said assistant general manager Doug Melvin, "and we did.

"That's the only way the guy is going to get better. When you have a Bob Melvin here, you almost have to catch him to keep him sharp, and that's going to keep young players from getting an opportunity."

Hoiles is not the only young player affected by the deal. Class AAA prospect Jeff Tackett made a good first impression when he came up last September. He has a chance to move in as the backup, though it seems more likely that 42-year-old Rick Dempsey will be kept in reserve at the major-league level.

Trading Melvin was a calculated risk, since it left the Orioles one injury away from turning all the playing time over to the likes of Dempsey, Tackett and non-roster invitee Mark Parent. But it was an organizational decision that had to be made if Hoiles was to fulfill his offensive potential.

"Sure, there's a risk," Melvin said, "but there is that risk with a lot of positions. We like Jeff Tackett. We don't want to sell him short. He needs some work, but that's why Dempsey and Parent are here."

Manager John Oates says that the club has better catching depth than it did a year ago.

"I'm willing to stack up the six we have here now with the catchers we had last spring," he said. "I really believe that if Dempsey comes in and beats Jeff out -- and I'm not saying that he's going to -- I really believe that we will be a better team, because I believe that Jeff can do what Bob did for us last year."

If that happens -- and most concede that it probably will happen -- Hoiles would start all but a handful of games and Tackett would start another season with the Red Wings.

Hoiles has been the club's catcher of the future since scout John Stokoe persuaded the club to ask for him in the 1988 deal that sent outfielder Fred Lynn to the Tigers. There were reservations about his defensive ability, but Hoiles has worked hard to become a solid defensive catcher, throwing out a respectable 33 percent of the runners who tried to steal against him last year.

"We liked his bat a lot," Doug Melvin said. "It looked like he was going to be a bat guy. People thought he didn't have a plus arm, but there are a lot of guys out there who have plus arms and can't hit a lick. He's not the kind of guy who's going to impress you throwing the ball during infield drills. He isn't going to make people ooh and aah about his arm. But he has good mechanics, and he's got a chance to throw people out because of his accuracy and how quick he gets rid of the ball."

Now, he's going to get a chance to do it full time, and only time will tell whether the Orioles made the right decision.

"It's going to be a pretty big year for him," Melvin said. "I think you'll see him really progress. I like the way he goes about his work. He's a good worker and a good listener."

He has a lot of former catchers to listen to, with Oates, Elrod Hendricks and Cal Ripken Sr. on the coaching staff. The addition of Dempsey also could aid in the educational process. By all accounts, Hoiles is a quick learner and an intelligent player, but it is the Orioles who will look very smart if Hoiles comes into his own in 1992.

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