Hoiles' arm throws chink in O's armor

March 23, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Opening Day is nine days away, and the Orioles still don't know if they trust Chris Hoiles as their starting catcher. Right now, the answer probably is no, raising major questions about this season and beyond.

Manager Davey Johnson said yesterday that he might need to play backup Gregg Zaun against teams with speed, and left open the possibility of carrying three catchers if Hoiles' throwing does not improve in the final eight exhibitions.

The third catcher likely would be Cesar Devarez, who would make the club over outfielder Mark Smith and infielder Jeff Huson. Club officials aren't optimistic they can acquire another catcher before Opening Day.

The 25th spot on this team is largely irrelevant Devarez wouldn't play much, and neither would Smith nor Huson. The real question is Hoiles. Can he still throw well enough to catch? Or is he on his way to becoming a DH?

That's a frightening prospect, considering the Orioles signed Hoiles to a five-year, $17.25 million contract before last season. But Johnson has an even more immediate concern: Slowing down Kansas City in the opening series.

It might not be as big a problem as Johnson fears the Orioles' top four starting pitchers excel at holding runners. But Johnson so values defense, he emphasized, "I want someone who can help shut down the running game."

Granted, most teams in the American League don't run nearly as well as Kansas City. Still, the Orioles won't reach the postseason with a catcher who can't throw, or one who is as inexperienced as Zaun.

They need someone like Toronto's Randy Knorr, but can't find the proper fit for a trade. Zaun, a switch-hitter batting .250 this spring, will make a suitable backup. But what if there's still a void at midseason?

Then, the Orioles might have no choice but to trade for Oakland's Terry Steinbach a $2 million rental when they're already paying Hoiles $3.25 million this season.

Hoiles, 31, said yesterday that he is open to serving as a DH his principal goal is to get 500 at-bats for the first time in his career. He also said his shoulder is pain-free, and that he probably could catch 120 to 130 games.

Whatever, the final eight exhibitions are critical. Hoiles is indeed throwing better, and he hit the ball hard three times in yesterday's 4-2 loss to Minnesota, crushing an opposite-field homer, his third in four games.

The Orioles deliberately brought him along slowly this spring, and also tried to change his throwing mechanics, the better to protect his shoulder. It's not surprising that Hoiles is behind. But now time is running out.

"Right now, I'm in between where I used to be and where they want me," Hoiles said. "It ain't working for me. That's some of the problem just a mechanical difference. There's a happy medium between the two. I'm trying to find it right now."

Hoiles said he "aired it out" Thursday in a workout in Fort Lauderdale while the Orioles played in Vero Beach. He made 20 throws to second base, then caught eight innings yesterday, describing his shoulder as "100 percent."

So, is he ready, or not?

Opponents have succeeded in six of seven stolen-base attempts against Hoiles in Grapefruit League play, including a double steal yesterday that was largely the fault of pitcher Kent Mercker.

Johnson said Hoiles is "on track," but it's clear he wants to see him throw with more zip. "His arm strength is getting there," Johnson said. "His technique is a little out of whack."

Eight more exhibitions, then Johnson must make a decision. He isn't prepared to say how many games Hoiles will catch. How can he, when he's not certain Hoiles can consistently reach second on the fly?

"It would depend on him, how he's throwing, how he's holding up," Johnson said. "Early in the year, if he catches five out of seven, that's about where we'd like him.

"It depends on maybe the weather, if he's getting loose. He could catch less. I want him ready so when you have to go to the whip, you can go to the whip."

Hoiles threw out at least 31 percent of opposing base stealers three of his first four seasons, then dropped to 25.6 percent last year. The pitchers share the responsibility, but Hoiles conceded he doesn't throw as well as Zaun.

"I've always been labeled with an average arm, and I always will be," Hoiles said. "The older I get, the more average it will be. My main thing is release and accuracy. That's how I make it up."

Fair enough, but what if Hoiles is physically incapable of throwing the way he once did? Carrying three catchers is no big deal for the first month, but ultimately it's a waste of a roster spot, especially for a manager who likes to use all 25 players.

Then again, maybe not.

B. J. Surhoff isn't an option Johnson said he would catch only in an "extreme emergency." Those could occur from time to time. Johnson said he isn't opposed to putting Zaun and Hoiles in the same lineup at the risk of losing his DH.

"I don't know how many guys in the American League last year burned the DH," said Johnson, who spent nine years managing in the NL. "I've done it twice this spring already."

Better he should have a No. 1 catcher with a strong enough arm to play nearly every day. Chris Hoiles is supposed to be that player, and not just for this season.

For the next four years.

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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