Orioles' few questions still need answers Hoiles' shoulder appears to top team's list of concerns

Lineup, rotation mostly set

Mills' sore shoulder opens spot in bullpen

March 20, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - This has been a strange spring training for the Orioles. Strange in a good way.

In most camps, there are a couple of spots in the lineup up for grabs, competition for one or two jobs in the starting rotation, lots of major questions. The Detroit Tigers, for example, began spring training figuring that only Sean Bergman was a sure thing in their rotation and now they may trade Bergman.

In Camp Gillick, however, most of the roster decisions were made during the off-season. Manager Davey Johnson arrived here in mid-February knowing the essential makeup of his lineup and rotation, knowing that he would have only a few decisions to ponder.

Twelve days removed from Opening Day, some of those questions remain, and others have developed. Here are the top 10:

1. Can Chris Hoiles be the everyday catcher? The status of Hoiles is a growing concern. Johnson asked Hoiles to take it easy early in camp, not wanting to risk the same sort of shoulder injury that hampered the catcher in 1995.

Nonetheless, Hoiles is throwing poorly very poorly at times. Most of his throws to second have been weak, bouncing before reaching the bag. Johnson says Hoiles' shoulder is gradually improving.

But, as general manager Pat Gillick acknowledged to a New York Post reporter Monday, Hoiles isn't progressing as quickly as the Orioles would like. (Hoiles started the spring with one hit in 26 at-bats before driving the ball in his past few games; his offense, however, is a secondary issue for the Orioles.)

The Orioles have little choice, for now, but to be patient with Hoiles. He is in the second year of a five-year, $17.25 million deal, and going out and making a trade now for a full-time replacement would be a hasty move. If Hoiles' arm improves, all is well. If it doesn't, the Orioles always could make a midseason deal for a front-line catcher on a bad team, such as the Oakland Athletics' Terry Steinbach or the Philadelphia Phillies' Benito Santiago.

Gregg Zaun has had a great spring, and he's now seen as being a capable backup. The Orioles might not feel as comfortable, however, about having to play Zaun every day if Hoiles is out.

To help compensate for Hoiles' problems early, the Orioles could carry a third catcher. This way, Hoiles could start a game, and if the Orioles take the lead, another catcher could replace Hoiles in the middle innings and Johnson would have another catcher available in case of injury.

2. Will they keep a third-string catcher? The Orioles talked extensively with the Toronto Blue Jays about Randy Knorr, but Knorr is out of options and can't be sent to the minors without passing through waivers. The Orioles could trade for Knorr and send Zaun to the minors, but the staff really likes Zaun, and many feels he's earned the right to be on the team.

The Orioles are following Dodgers catcher Carlos Hernandez, who is available, as well as others. But if the Orioles carry a third catcher strictly for defense, they just may go with their own guy Cesar Devarez. The front office and Johnson are trying to determine whether Devarez is good enough defensively to fill that role.

3. Who's on third? B. J. Surhoff wants to be, and it has become apparent Johnson wants to reward Surhoff's effort. Surhoff appears more and more at ease playing third, and Johnson praises him repeatedly. Whether Surhoff or Bobby Bonilla is at third Johnson said he may use both the Orioles will be slightly below average at the position. Then again, as former manager Phil Regan pointed out last year, there aren't many good defensive third basemen in the AL, anyway.

4. Will Bill Ripken be on the team? Ripken, is, technically, a nonroster player trying to win a utility job. But he's had a productive spring, has added a positive presence in the clubhouse and Gillick talked about him Monday as if he were on the squad. It's just a matter of time before he's added to the major-league roster.

5. Who's going to win the final roster spot? With the addition of Tony Tarasco and the probable addition of Bill Ripken, there is one spot available for a position player. It could go to the third catcher, but if not, then there are three candidates fighting for the spot infielder Jeff Huson, outfielder Mark Smith and nonroster player Joe Hall, a long shot. Huson has experience, but the Orioles already have two utility players in Ripken and Manny Alexander. Smith adds depth to the outfield, but Johnson might prefer experience for his bench. Hall has played well overall, but hasn't hit well in A exhibition games.

6. Is middle relief set? Johnson and Gillick counted on Alan Mills to be a middle reliever this season. But Mills, coming back from shoulder surgery, is suffering from tendinitis, and now the Orioles aren't counting on him for anything, leaving one job open in the bullpen. Right-hander Oscar Munoz was the front-runner for that last spot before getting banged around his last two outings, and Keith Shepherd may be too inconsistent.

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