First things first: Davis healthy Orioles hope it's start of big year

April 05, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Orioles embark on their quest for the American League East title today against the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards, but the new season begins with an old question.

Who's on first?

This is no comedy routine. The Orioles have been trying to sort out their first-base situation almost from the day Glenn Davis was acquired from the Houston Astros in 1991. The picture has gotten clearer -- and brighter -- this spring, but not to the point where anyone can predict how much he'll be able to play.

Davis will be at first base today when right-hander Rick Sutcliffe meets former Orioles left-hander Craig Lefferts in the season opener, which is a victory in itself after a 1992 season in which chronic back and rib cage problems restricted Davis to designated hitter duty. Manager Johnny Oates will open up with a best-case lineup that includes Davis on defense and Harold Baines making his Orioles debut as the DH, but whether that will become a regular arrangement remains open to speculation.

The team appears to be counting on it, but not even a very upbeat Davis is ready to make any promises.

"You've got to ask me that question after my 12th game," Davis said, "because that's the furthest I've been into a season with the Orioles."

Davis' medical history is well-known. He suffered a freak neck injury in 1991 and missed 105 games during his first season with the club. Last year, he was at first base on Opening Day, but didn't play again for nearly a month because of recurrent back spasms that began on the flight home from spring training. He would make only one more appearance on defense during the course of the season and still cannot say that the chronic soreness is behind him.

Nevertheless, the offensive potential of the 1993 team is built on the assumption that Davis can play 100 or more games at first base, something he hasn't done since 1989. If he plays first regularly, Baines can be the every day DH. If he doesn't, he and Baines will have to share the DH role and David Segui will play first. Segui may be a promising young hitter, but that scenario would diminish the club's offensive capacity.

The Orioles were confident enough in that contingency to release backup first baseman Randy Milligan in December, a move that also was predicated on a more positive outlook for Davis this year.

"I've been positive and optimistic about Glenn Davis all along," Oates said. "I know about the last two years, but things can change. Let's not assume he's going to get hurt. If he does, he does. But let's assume he's going to be healthy, that he's going to hit 25 home runs and drive in 80. Let's assume that until there is something different."

Davis isn't assuming anything -- not after what he has been through the past two years -- but he has worked very hard to put himself into position to play regularly again.

"That is one of my goals, but it is something that needs to be proven," Davis said. "Can I? I don't know if I can answer that. Am I going to attempt to? Yes. Will I be able to play 150 games a year like I used to? I feel there's a good possibility that I can. . . if I learn to manage it."

If he succeeds, everything else falls into place. Baines would not have to test his fragile knees in the outfield to increase his playing time. The Orioles would have two legitimate run-producers to back up Cal Ripken at the heart of the batting order. If Davis does not play regularly, the Orioles will be a far less dangerous team, though the club obviously has confidence in Segui.

"When they let Randy go, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, what they wanted out of me and what they would do if I couldn't play," Davis said. "David Segui is the future. There comes a time when you have to make a decision about the direction you want to go in."

Segui could be the odd man out or the only game in town, depending on what transpires during the next few months. He is a fine defensive first baseman who has been waiting patiently for a chance to play, but he won't get much of a chance unless Davis' comeback comes up short.

"I have no idea how much David is going to play," Oates said. "I talked to David today and I also talked to Harold and Glenn. David will be doing some late-inning defense and when Harold gets a day off against a tough left-hander, Glenn can DH and David will be at first base."

Segui was used so sparingly last year (189 at-bats) that he publicly expressed the desire to be taken in the expansion draft, but his prospects for a satisfying future in Baltimore improved when Milligan was released. He knows he won't get a lot of playing time if everything goes according to plan, but he also knows the last guy who backed up Davis (Milligan) played almost every day for the past two seasons.

"I'm just going to stay ready," Segui said. "I know that if Glenn's healthy, he's going to play. I also know that with what has happened to Glenn the past two years, if he can't go out there, I have to be ready to play.

"We've got the kind of team where you can't complain about not starting. We've got a chance to win the World Series. I need to be ready, not sitting about worrying about not starting."

Davis thinks that Segui will get some playing time even if everything goes according to Plan A, because Oates is committed to keeping his regulars as well rested as possible.

"He'll probably pick his spots and play David," Davis said, "because David is going to need some playing time. On the flip side, if I get off to a good start and hit some home runs, it might be hard to take me out of the lineup. I'm capable of doing that. It's going to be an interesting season all around."

Sutcliffe's openers

'

Year Team Opp. Score

1983 Cleve. Oakland 5-4, W

1984 Cleve. Texas 9-1, W

1985 Cubs Pitts. 2-1, W

1986 Cubs St. Louis 1-2, L

1987 Cubs St. Louis 3-9, L

1988 Cubs Atlanta 10-9, -

1989 Cubs Phila. 5-4, W

1992 Orioles Cleve. 2-0, W

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