Struggling Hoiles has O's searching

July 01, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- General manager Pat Gillick said it again yesterday -- the Orioles want to add another catcher.

What would that mean for Chris Hoiles?

"We haven't figured that out yet," Gillick said.

Not for this season, or the three that follow.

Hoiles, 31, is signed through 1999, with approximately $12.5 million remaining on his contract.

It goes without saying that the previous regime made a major blunder by giving a five-year deal to a 30-year-old catcher who had produced only one big season.

But what can the Orioles do now?

Hoiles isn't hitting, isn't throwing out runners, isn't doing much of anything. It appears more and more likely he will be the full-time DH next season.

"He might have to," Gillick said.

Could the Orioles carry him for three more years in that capacity?

"I don't know."

Heck, manager Davey Johnson said he doesn't even want a player batting .222 as his DH now.

"He's got to swing the bat better," Johnson said after yesterday's 9-1 victory over New York. "He's not an average hitter. He should drive in runs."

Alas, it isn't happening.

Hoiles has 11 homers, but only 27 RBIs. He has only two hits with men in scoring position since June 4. He hasn't hit a double in almost seven weeks.

"We were looking for him to be a big impact player on this ballclub," Johnson said. "He's not going to be a thrower. He's not going to be a runner. We're counting on him to swing the bat. And he's struggled."

So, what's the answer?

Maybe just to wait -- Hoiles batted .208 before the All-Star break ++ last season, .291 after. He hit the ball hard twice yesterday, finishing 1-for-4 with an opposite-field single in his last at-bat.

"You can see the light at the end of the tunnel," hitting coach Rick Down said. "That was a big at-bat for him, driving the ball the other way. Hopefully, it's a start."

Hoiles thought it might be.

"It's going to get better," he said. "Mark my word."

If it does, this will be simple -- the Orioles can trade for a catcher and make Hoiles their DH.

But even then, why would they want him to play such a limited role when he'll be earning $10.75 million over the next three years?

That can't be their concern, not when Hoiles has thrown out only six of 42 base stealers. The pitchers are partly to blame, but the Orioles can hardly count on Hoiles, given his past shoulder trouble and declining arm strength.

Thus, their desire to acquire a young catcher.

Gregg Zaun is an adequate backup, but club officials apparently have decided that Rochester's Cesar Devarez is nothing more than a Triple-A player.

They've pursued Seattle's Chris Widger and Philadelphia's Mike Lieberthal, but Gillick doesn't seem optimistic about completing a deal -- "there just aren't a lot of young catchers floating around," he said.

What about a veteran?

A National League source said yesterday the Orioles have asked the Phillies about Benito Santiago, a catcher they attempted to sign in the off-season but lost when they couldn't guarantee him playing time.

If they knew then what they know now. . . .

"The way I'm playing, I'd be asking, too," Hoiles said. "It doesn't bother me. I'd obviously like to be on the other side, when you're doing the job well. Then I wouldn't have to put them in a position like that.

"They're in a position where they want to win. I do, too. It's tough on me. The position I'm in -- not hitting the ball very well, not doing some of the things I'm capable of doing -- it's probably tougher on me than it is on them."

Hoiles said he is healthy and still wants to catch, but he almost certainly would not resist becoming a DH. It certainly is better than being out of the lineup, and he has started only 13 of the past 25 games.

In fact, making Hoiles a DH might liberate him -- he could stop worrying about his throwing and his handling of the pitching staff, and focus on his hitting.

Gillick seems to sympathize with his plight -- "He's worked hard. He's very dedicated," the GM said. "At this point, he hasn't put it all together, but it ain't for lack of trying."

Still, what if Hoiles simply can't play anymore? Will there come a point when the Orioles try to buy him out, the way they did with Sid Fernandez?

Obviously, it's too early for such talk, but the questions will only grow louder if Hoiles doesn't start hitting. He said he has overcome the mental hurdle of trying to justify his contract.

The future?

It's beyond his control.

"I would give anything to finish my career here," Hoiles said. "I love it in Baltimore. The fans are great. I definitely don't want to leave. I'd like to finish what I started."

That would be the Orioles' first choice.

It's rather troubling when your starting catcher has 3 1/2 years left on his contract, and you're already exploring other options.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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