Hoiles may lack experience, but not opportunity

March 11, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- His nature won't allow Chris Hoiles to take anything for granted. But he realizes that, for the first time in his career, he doesn't have to prove anything in spring training.

The evidence is indisputable. When the Orioles traded Bob Melvin to Kansas City for righthander Storm Davis last Dec. 11, there no longer was any question about who would be the No. 1 catcher. He moved on to the "short list" of players manager John Oates says have job security with the Orioles.

After a five-year struggle through the minor leagues and one inconclusive major-league season, Hoiles knows the job is his to keep. He admits he had mixed feelings about the trade.

"To be honest, I was surprised when I heard it," said Hoiles. "I can't say I was disappointed, but it was hard to believe.

"Bob is a great receiver, with a lot of knowledge and a leader. He was a positive presence on the field and in the clubhouse," said Hoiles.

While acknowledging Melvin's skills, Hoiles realizes that the trade was a compliment to his own skills. "For them to trade somebody like that and leave me as the only experienced catcher after only one year [in the big leagues] gives me a lot of confidence," said Hoiles.

"I'm not saying I'm No. 1 and don't have to produce, but I am a lot more relaxed. It takes a lot of the pressure off. I'm looking forward to catching 120-130 games."

The most games Hoiles has ever played as a professional is 108 (one more than last year) in 1987, his first full year in the minor leagues. And one reason the Orioles invited Rick Dempsey to camp is because they don't know how many games Hoiles can catch in a year. But he dismisses any doubt about his durability.

"In the minor leagues the season is 20 games and one month shorter," he said. "I don't see any problem catching another 20 games. The more I play, the better I feel."

Hoiles, who will be 27 a week from Friday, has minimal major-league experience, but manager John Oates said that was not a cause of concern when the Melvin trade was discussed.

"At that point our primary objective was to strengthen our pitching and we hadn't been able to do anything," said Oates. "We'd dropped some guys off the roster [Jeff Ballard, Dave Johnson, Jeff Robinson, Paul Kilgus] and we hadn't added anybody.

"There was no guarantee we were going to be able to sign [Rick] Sutcliffe, and we didn't know if we'd be able to get [Dennis] Rasmussen. We had the chance to get a strong, young arm and I felt we had to do it.

"We in the organization had already made up our minds last year that we wanted Chris to catch 120-130 games," said Oates. "We knew that Bob wasn't going to be happy with that, and in fact he could see it coming toward the end of last year.

"He came in to talk to me and said if he was going to be strictly a backup, then maybe it would be better if he moved on," said Oates. "When we had a chance to get Storm, it just made sense.

"I honestly felt, and still do, that Jeff Tackett could give us what the other guy [Melvin] would give us if Chris starts 120-130 games," said Oates. "I would have no reservations at all about going into the season with Jeff as the backup.

"He does all the things Bob did -- he's a good receiver, he handles pitchers well, has a strong and accurate arm. The only thing he doesn't have is experience, but he knows our pitchers very well."

Tackett's situation, of course, is compounded by the presence of Dempsey, who has proven to have more baseball lives than a cat and has a good chance to go north with the Orioles. If he does, however, it won't be because Tackett isn't ready to handle backup duties -- or because Hoiles isn't capable of being the regular.

Dempsey's primary value lies in the fact that he could do the job while Tackett played every day (at Triple-A Rochester) another year. However it works out, it will not affect Hoiles.

"He's got power, he hit some home runs for us," Oates said of Hoiles. "The only thing we have to find out is whether or not he can catch more than 110 games. And how else are we going to find out unless we play him?"

Despite his offensive potential, it is Hoiles' defense that has convinced the Orioles he should play regularly. He is a better than advertised thrower and receiver who is a good communicator with the pitchers.

"I think my defense was overshadowed by my offense with the Tigers and I got a little bit of a bad rap," said Hoiles, who came to the Orioles in the Fred Lynn trade Aug. 31, 1988. "I wasn't blessed with a flashy, strong arm -- my throwing depends more on technique, accuracy and getting rid of the ball fast.

"In the minors I threw out about 40 percent of the runners, so I think my defense was underrated."

In yesterday's 8-4 loss to the Phillies, Hoiles hit a deep sacrifice fly to leftfield with the bases loaded in the second inning. It accounted for the game's first run and, except for a strong wind that later reversed itself, probably would've been his second homer of the spring.

He thinks he could be a 20-home run hitter in the big leagues if he reaches Oates' goal of 120-130 games. He hit 11 last year in 341 at-bats, but the year before he hit 18 in little more than half a season.

"Anything above 20 would be a bonus," he said. "What I'd like would be to consistently be in the upper teens to 20 a year."

That would fit very nicely into the game plan Oates has for the coming season. It would also solidify the future for Hoiles, a regular after only 136 games in the big leagues.

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