Hoiles' career takes on a fresh swing

August 23, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Chris Hoiles hasn't just salvaged his season with his recent offensive surge. He probably has salvaged his Orioles career.

That's what Peter Angelos says, and as general manager Pat Gillick has discovered, the owner's opinion often carries the most weight.

Angelos said yesterday that he was "offended" by the criticism of Hoiles earlier this season, some of which came from Gillick and manager Davey Johnson.

He also said the Orioles pitchers are partly responsible for the opponents' high stolen-base percentage, and that Johnson and his coaches need to help them become more effective at holding runners.

The bottom line?

Hoiles likely will remain the Orioles' regular catcher, especially now with Gregg Zaun the player to be named in the Terry Mathews trade.

Asked whether Hoiles is the full-time catcher next season if Eddie Murray returns as the designated hitter, Angelos said, "Damn right he is."

And Angelos, while saying it was Gillick's decision, made it clear he wants Murray to return at the age of 41.

"Do I sentimentally, as a fan, believe he ought to come back? Definitely," Angelos said.

"But it has to run through the process. I'm optimistic, but that really is a decision Pat should make. I don't want to be calling the shots."

Yet, conflicts keep arising.

Gillick wanted to acquire Kevin Mitchell from Boston for Triple-A third baseman Scott McClain last month, but Angelos preferred to trade for Murray.

Gillick placed Hoiles on waivers in June, then tried to acquire several catchers, including Seattle's Chris Widger, San Francisco's Kirt Manwaring, St. Louis' Tom Pagnozzi and Philadelphia's Benito Santiago.

Now Angelos is indicating that Hoiles is the long-term answer.

Gillick declined to comment.

Hoiles, 31, is in the second year of a five-year, $17.25 million contract -- a contract awarded by former general manager Roland Hemond and approved by Angelos.

On June 30, Gillick said Hoiles "might have to" be the full-time DH next season, and added that he didn't know whether the Orioles could carry him three more years in that capacity.

At that point, Hoiles was batting .222.

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

Hoiles has since raised his average to .265, with 10 homers and 29 RBIs in his past 33 games. He still isn't throwing out runners consistently, but now that he is hitting, it doesn't seem as big an issue.

Such is life for a slugging catcher.

All-Star MVP Mike Piazza had thrown out only 12.9 percent of opposing base stealers entering last night's play, even lower than Hoiles Hoiles' 14 percent.

The difference?

Piazza was batting .340 with 30 homers.

End of controversy.

"It's amazing that when you start hitting, everyone forgets all of those numbers all of a sudden," Hoiles said. "I guess if that's going to quiet the critics, that's fine."

Not with Angelos.

"I was offended by the comments that he couldn't catch, couldn't throw and couldn't hit," he said. "To me, that wasn't the history of Chris Hoiles with the Orioles."

Perhaps Angelos was simply defending a player who struggled so mightily in the first half. But for all his good intentions, he keeps putting Gillick into awkward positions.

The Orioles must falter to justify Gillick's attempt to dismantle the club with a series of trades before the July 31 deadline. And now Hoiles and Murray must falter if Gillick and Johnson want to justify replacing them at catcher and DH.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's my catcher," Angelos said of Hoiles. "If Pat and [assistant GM] Kevin [Malone] come up with someone they think is better, we'll take a look. But I wouldn't want in any way to suggest that Chris Hoiles is not going to be our catcher."

Presumably, the same logic will apply with Murray, even though Johnson likes to rotate his DH to keep his regulars fresh -- and could use Hoiles in that role next season.

Murray has batted .278 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in only 29 games with the Orioles, but one scout said last night that he needs to "cheat" to catch up with fastballs.

Losing him might prove as big a mistake as losing Harold Baines. Then again, it might prove a wise decision, enabling the Orioles to avoid a public-relations disaster if they are forced later to make a difficult decision on Murray.

The Orioles' play in the past month has demonstrated yet again that little in this game is predictable. The glass is either half-empty or half-full, depending on your perspective.

Take catchers. They aren't measured only by their ability to throw out base stealers. Hoiles excels at blocking pitches in the dirt -- the Orioles have allowed only 37 wild pitches and passed balls, second fewest in the league.

"I think Chris Hoiles is a solid, first-class catcher," Angelos said. "There were some questions about his ability to deal with [base stealers]. I would suggest you take a better look at our pitchers."

Hoiles has thrown out only 12 of 86 base stealers, but Angelos pointed out that it's difficult to blame him entirely -- he's 4-for-8 with Mike Mussina on the mound.

"That means somewhere in between there's a solution to the problem," Angelos said. "Hopefully, our coaching staff and manager can deal with the problem effectively.

"It isn't Chris. It's a combination of factors. We should deal with those factors."

Hoiles was diplomatic.

"I'm not going to point fingers," he said. "It's not a problem with my shoulder. It's not a problem with my arm strength. I feel as strong now as I've been.

"I know I can still throw guys out. I may not have the strongest arm in the world, but I know I can still get 'em."

Ask Peter Angelos.

He's going to get the chance.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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