O's on bubble play mind games Role players facing spring of uncertainty

March 02, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles' exhibition season begins today with a game against the Florida Marlins, and so, too, begins the handicapping.

But this setting of odds has nothing to do with jai alai or dog racing, and everything to do with players fighting for a spot on the major-league roster and trying to figure their chances.

Those on the bubble, "will watch how the manager is using guys," said utility player Jeff Huson, who has been on the bubble before and is again this spring. "You'll watch to see who's hitting well, who's playing well.

"They'll play mind games with themselves, asking everybody, 'What do you think they're going to do?' "

But there's really no way of making sense of it, and as Huson said, really no point in trying to guess. General manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson and his staff must consider a number of factors when picking their roster, and they won't necessarily pick the 25 best players.

Players out of options cannot be sent to the minors without being passed through waivers, so that works in their favor (Orioles in that category are infielder Manny Alexander and reliever Oscar Munoz). High draft picks that have cost the club a lot of money to sign and develop often get extra consideration. Players who keep their mouths shut and don't complain sometimes have an advantage when trying to pin down one of the final roster spots; managers don't want unhappy role players.

The players trying to win those last spots think about this stuff, they try to guess what the manager is thinking. They may even secretly root against teammates who are trying to win the same jobs they are. "I've never seen that done openly," Huson said. "But you know that deep down inside, that happens."

But try as they may, sometimes they have no clue. Huson was with Texas in the spring of 1994, and in prior years he'd been the full-time utility man, playing short, playing second, playing left field. The thought never entered his mind he wouldn't make the team.

His knee bothered him early in camp, and swinging a bat in one exhibition, he could feel his knee pop. Torn cartilage, and Huson went on the disabled list. He found out subsequently that had he remained healthy, he would've been released the next day. "I had no idea," he said.

Huson, who spent most of last season with the Orioles, is 31, and is competing with Alexander and non-roster invitee Bill Ripken for utility jobs. Two will stay, in all probability, and one will go. "It's a tossup," he said. "Manny is out of options, I think I played well in this role last year, and Billy is a proven major-league player. I wouldn't even venture a guess which way it's going to go."

He says he doesn't worry about handicapping his chances as he did in the past. "Not so much anymore," he said. "Earlier in my career I did. I've gotten to the point now where people know what I can do or can't do. If I fit into their plans, then I make the team. I've found in this game, the more you try to figure things out that aren't in your control . . . the more confused you get."

Mark Smith is on the bubble, competing for a job as a backup outfielder. His approach, in coming to camp, is that he's trying to win a starting job -- which, quite frankly, isn't going to happen unless there are injuries to Bobby Bonilla, Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux or Jeffrey Hammonds.

"Every other spring I've come in here," Smith said, "I've never had a chance to make the team. This spring, I've got my first legitimate chance to make the team."

He tries not to worry about what the other players are doing, who the Orioles have acquired and who they are looking for (at the moment, the O's are searching for a left-handed hitting outfielder, and if they are successful, Smith's chances will be hurt).

"I'm just concerned with myself," he said. "The only things I can control are what I do. It really doesn't do me any good to sit and worry about it."

Last spring, Smith thought he might have a shot, but he didn't play in the field once, serving mostly as a pinch hitter. He asked field coordinator Dave Jauss if he had a chance. Jauss was honest and told him no, and Smith asked to be sent to the minors. "The next day I was out," he said. "It didn't do me any good to be in camp if I wasn't going to make the team."

Even as Smith tries not think about his chances, he's vaguely aware of how his talents are perceived. He realizes the coaching staff, all except bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, is new to the team, will look at his burly body and think he can't play defense.

Smith was pleased, then, to throw out a runner at third in the second intrasquad game Thursday. It couldn't hurt his chances. "I'm confident I'm going to make this team," Smith said.

That's what those on the bubble have to think. They've got to believe that, Smith acknowledged, or they don't have a chance.

On the bubble

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