CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Not long ago, it seemed inconceivable Randy Milligan would open the season as the Orioles' full-time designated hitter. Now Dwight Evans is gone and Sam Horn is limping. Let down those antlers, Moose, and stay a while.
It's obvious the Orioles can't trade Milligan, and the release of Evans means they can stop trying. They no longer can afford to lose Milligan's righthanded bat, unless they want Horn to share the DH spot with Luis Mercedes and David Segui.
An interesting scenario, but one that places too much trust in Horn, who last season averaged a homer every 14 at-bats and a strikeout every three. Horn's sore hamstring further underscores the point. What happens if he's not ready by Opening Day?
The question is premature, but it illustrates the need to keep Milligan -- unless the Orioles acquire a right-handed outfield slugger in return, or grow so enchanted with Mercedes, they find it necessary to make him the righthanded DH.
The chances of either happening are extremely slim. The Orioles are still disgusted over the offers they're getting for Milligan. And they're still divided on the rookie Mercedes, who is batting .231 after 10 exhibition games.
That's why Orioles president Larry Lucchino said yesterday the club will be "more selective" in its efforts to trade Milligan. Why general manager Roland Hemond added, "You have to look at it more closely." Why manager John Oates said, "I think I will have more opportunities to use Randy now."
For his part, Milligan did not sound completely reassured, but after so much speculation, that's to be expected. More than anything, he was stunned by Evans' release. The two worked out together yesterday at the club's training comxlex in St. Petersburg. At the time, no one had any idea.
"I'm in shock right now. I can't believe it," Milligan said after learning the news from a reporter last night (he did not make the trip to Clearwater foz the Orioles' 3-1 victory over Philadelphia, and did not know Evans met with Hemond after the workout).
Upon reflection, Milligan added, "I never thought this would happen. I'm definitely in a better position than I was 10 minutes ago. I can see my job solidifying a little bit. I feel a little bit better now, but things can change in an awful hurry."
That, of course, was yesterday's painful lesson. Oates wanted Evans to play rightfield against lefthanders and remain the club's top pinch-hitter. But when it became doubtful Evans could handle the physical strain, Oates was forced to abandon his plan to make him the Orioles' Manny Mota.
There are few sadder days in baseball than when a player of Evans' ability, dignity and longevity is told he no longer is (wanted. The Orioles simply had no choice. Evans, 40, might prove a useful part for a contender, but this team could not justify the luxury, not with its roster so jammed.
It's strange so many players were surprised by the move, for not even Evans could envision a spot for himself. He told Hemond at the start of camp he would appreciate an early decision, so he could try to land a job with another club. The guess here is he won't.
The shame of it is, he has 385 career homers, when 400 almost certainly would guarantee his induction into the Hall of Fame. Last year he batted .270 with six homers and 38 RBIs, and was 10-for-25 as a pinch-hitter. But he also had one nagging injury after another, and started this spring the same way.
Now that he's gone, Segui gets a roster spot, Chito Martinez and Joe Orsulak get more playing time and Milligan gets to relax. Brady Anderson figures to lead off against righties, with Mike Devereaux returning to that spot against lefties. For now, Mercedes remains the odd man out.
That could change if Horn does not recover soon. Oates wanted to give him two at-bats Saturday, but Horn said he couldn't run. He accompanied the club on its two-day trip to the east coast of Florida, but his status remains day-to-day.
Oates still expects him to be healthy for the opener, but Horn has yet to face live pitching, and already has missed one-third of the exhibition schedule. He might be forced to catch up playing in minor-league games, and it's always possible he could re-aggravate his hamstring.
So much can change. So much will change. The release of Evans marks the start of a hectic period in which teams confront major roster decisions. Other attractive players will become available in the coming days, maybe even one or two that can help the Orioles.
Not long ago, it seemed inconceivable Milligan would open the season as the Orioles' DH. Pretty soon, it might seem inconceivable the club ever thought of trading him. Let down those antlers, Moose, and stay a while. It's like you never went away.