SARASOTA, Fla. -- Reserve catcher Mark Parent is not just a third wheel at spring training this year. Manager Johnny Oates said yesterday that choosing between Parent and Jeff Tackett might be the most difficult thing he'll have to do all spring.
"It probably will go down to the last day of spring training," Oates said. "They are going to battle it out all the way."
Parent was signed last year to provide insurance behind the plate. He was optioned to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, where his stock went up with a 17-homer, 69-RBI performance in 101 games.
Tackett got most of the playing time when starter Chris Hoiles went down with a broken wrist last year, but Parent was up with the major-league club enough to show Oates that he has the best throwing arm of any catcher in the organization.
The decision will be a difficult one, because there are so many considerations. Tackett is four years younger. Parent hits for more power. Tackett is the home-grown prospect. Parent has the stronger arm. The situation will have to shake itself out.
"It's going to be one of the hardest decisions I have to make," Oates said.
Williamson armed and ready
Right-hander Mark Williamson said that his arm is ready for the challenge, but he isn't making any predictions about the impending competition for the fifth spot in Oates' starting rotation.
"If it happens, it happens," he said. "I'm in the position this year where I need to show that I'm healthy."
Williamson, who underwent elbow surgery last May, appeared to be sound when he returned to the Orioles' bullpen late last season, but he pitched only a handful of innings. The swingman role would require a lot more work.
"Hopefully, being a swingman,they would let you know what's going on," he said. "It's the 'what ifs' that are going to kill you. If you're going to be a spot starter, you don't want to be in a position where you're already used up [in the bullpen]."
General manager Roland Hemond took advantage of an opportunity yesterday to preach the benefits of playing winter baseball. He said that journeyman right-hander Mike Cook and Rochester pitcher Todd Stephan earned invitations to camp based on their winter-league performances.
Cook played in Puerto Rico and was one of the heroes of the team that competed in the Caribbean Series. He already had signed with the Orioles, but his performance convinced the club to make him a late non-roster invitee. Stephan helped himself with his performance in the Venezuelan Winter League.
"Both Mike and Todd Stephan benefited greatly toward their being here," Hemond said. "Some players don't appreciate the importance of winter ball. I encourage all players -- as many as possible -- to play. It's great for players early in their careers and it can be good for some at other points in their careers."
Assistant GM Doug Melvin expressed surprise at a local newspaper story that indicated that minor-league addition Scott Coolbaugh would be in camp to play third base in case Leo Gomez is not able to come back from the partial shoulder dislocation he suffered late last season.
"It's news to me," Melvin said. "We didn't invite Coolbaugh to camp."
Gomez appears to have done well with the off-season strengthening program aimed at tightening up a loose shoulder capsule, but there are no guarantees that the shoulder won't pop out again.
"He is showing no effects of it whatsoever," Oates said, "but time will tell."
Right-hander Ben McDonald did not have any trouble finding the target during the off-season. He bagged seven deer during a winter of rifle and bow hunting.
"I got three eight-points, one six-point and three does," McDonald said.
He dressed out some of the meat, but most of it was contributed to the homeless.
"They have a feed-the-homeless program [in Mississippi], where they process the meat and distribute it," he said. "It's a pretty good idea."
Sutcliffe tees up
Right-hander Rick Sutcliffe says that he won't be playing much golf this spring, but a recent afternoon on the links with relievers Gregg Olson and Mark Williamson has made that a costly decision.
"Judging from the way they played, this is going to cost me about $3,000 per year," he said. "I could have earned all my living expenses playing with them."