Baines crowded out of the outfield O's youngsters get a look while his knee gets a rest

March 09, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

HAINES CITY, FLA — HAINES CITY, Fla. -- Designated hitter Harold Baines might not play an inning in the Orioles outfield this spring, but that apparently is not a matter of great concern to manager Johnny Oates anymore. The club has de-emphasized the importance of Baines' defensive contribution during the regular season.

won't bother me if he doesn't go out there all spring," Oates said after yesterday's 4-0 exhibition victory over the Kansas City Royals. "It's going to be tough with all the other outfielders to find him time in the outfield."

Oates originally projected that Baines would play as many as 30 games in right field this season, but circumstances might dictate a full-time designated hitter role. He had to have fluid drained from hisright knee for the first time in two years last week, and the inflammation appears to be linked to the time he has spent running and taking fly balls during the first two weeks of training camp.

"It's kind of hard because I had a little setback," Baines said. "Coming into spring training, I was feeling so good, I was taking half an hour of fly balls and running sprints. I guess my joints aren't used to that."

Baines has played with knee problems for much of his career. He has undergone arthroscopic surgery on the right knee three times, but he has been on the disabled list once in 13 major-league seasons.

The club has changed his training regimen to reduce the wear and tear on his knees, but he has been in the lineup for each of the past two exhibition games. He walked twice and scored a run in yesterday's victory over the Royals.

His status as an everyday starter does not depend on his playing the outfield, but it could depend on whether teammate Glenn Davis can play regularly at first base. In Oates' perfect pre-training camp scenario, Baines was going to play a handful of games in right field and spend the rest of the time as the designated hitter. Davis was going to play 100 games at first base and a few dozen more as DH when Baines was in the outfield or taking the day off.

Oates would love to see all that happen, but he seemed to be shying away from his optimistic projection of outfield playing time for Baines even before the knee swelled up last week.

"He may not play a game in the outfield until July," Oates said, "so I'm not worried about whether he plays out there in spring. He's not going to remember in July whether he played the outfield in spring training."

Baines might have pushed himself too hard too early, but he can be forgiven for wanting to make a solid first impression. He long has wanted to play near his home on the Eastern Shore, but the TC circumstances that led to his professional homecoming this year may also have pushed him out of his normal spring routine.

"Being a free agent and not getting the offers that I thought I would, you feel like you have to prove yourself all over again," he said.

That shouldn't be necessary. Baines has been one of the American League's steadiest run producers since he broke into the major leagues in 1980 with the Chicago White Sox, averaging 19 home runs and 82 RBI. The Orioles have been trying to get him since 1989, but they did not succeed until the possibility of a large salary arbitration award prompted the Oakland Athletics to trade him for a couple of pitching prospects in January.

The club acquired him to provide left-handed power at the hearof the batting order -- not outfield defense -- but he would give Oates extra lineup flexibility if he could play in right field occasionally.

For the moment, however, the club has more right-field candidates than playing time to audition them. Chito Martinez started in right yesterday and hit his first home run of the spring. Rule V draftee Sherman Obando replaced him in the late innings and singled sharply in his only at-bat. He has three hits in six trips. Luis Mercedes is hitless in his first seven at-bats of the spring, but he figures to be around on Opening Day.

The club also would like to take a long look at utility outfielcandidate Jack Voigt and evaluate promising center fielders Damon Buford and Jeffrey Hammonds. No wonder Oates no longer feels any sense of urgency to get Baines out there.

Baines seems content to concentrate on swinging the bat, something he has been able to do a lot more since he signed with the Orioles. He looked very smooth during the first weeks of camp, and he attributes that to the regular live hitting he was able to get at Oriole Park during the month leading up to spring training.

"That was definitely an advantage," he said. "Usually, I don't get the kind of hitting that I got this year. I was able to hit live three times a week. I need to swing as much as I can. That's my job."

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