FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The most convincing testimonial to the value of utility infielder Jeff Reboulet comes from an unusual source -- the manager of the team that chose not to re-sign him.
Reboulet wanted to return to the Minnesota Twins this year, but when it became apparent that he would not get that chance, he signed with the Orioles, and probably will fill in for suspended second baseman Roberto Alomar in the Opening Day lineup.
Twins manager Tom Kelly did not openly question the organizational decision to let him go, but he clearly appreciated the contribution Reboulet made to his team.
"There are certain spokes in your wheel," Kelly said. "When you take one of those out, the wheel doesn't go so well. It's tough to eliminate that kind of player. It's a spot I didn't have to worry about. Now, I do have to worry about it, but that's just baseball."
Kelly loved the fact that Reboulet -- who went 1-for-1 in the Orioles' 16-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves yesterday -- could play virtually any position. He was the backup at every infield spot, the club's emergency catcher and a sometime outfielder during his 4 1/2 seasons in Minnesota. That resume should serve him well with the Orioles, who may try to get by with just one utility infielder so that manager Davey Johnson can go with an expanded pitching staff.
The real question is why Reboulet didn't get a new contract with the Twins. General manager Terry Ryan decided to clear the way for a younger -- and cheaper -- model, probably second-year infielder Denny Hocking. Reboulet, who will turn 33 next month, waited around for a major-league offer until he couldn't wait any longer, then signed with the Orioles.
"I don't think that they were interested in re-signing me, for whatever reason they had," Reboulet said, "but I think there were a lot of people who wanted me to stay there."
No sense looking back. Reboulet had several other offers, some bigger than the one he accepted with the Orioles, but he wanted the chance to go to the World Series. He arrived in the major leagues with the Twins the year (1992) after that club won its second world championship in four seasons, so he never has gotten a real taste of playoff contention.
"I'm very happy to be here," he said. "I'll be a lot happier if I make the team. If I had to pick any team to come to, this would be the team. I'm not afraid to compete. Everything happens for a reason. This could be good for me."
There is competition, but Reboulet appears to be the front-runner for the first -- and possibly only -- utility infield role. The other candidates are middle infield prospect Manny Alexander, who is expected to be traded before Opening Day, and veteran Kelly Gruber, who is facing long odds in his attempt to come back after a three-year layoff.
Johnson is far from making any important roster decisions, but he likes what he has seen so far. Reboulet reached base four times in Wednesday's intrasquad game and played several innings at shortstop against his old team in the exhibition opener Thursday.
"He's a down-and-dirty kind of player a scrapper," Johnson said. "He's a welcome addition here. He'll get a lot of playing time this spring. He's not one I'm worried about."
The Twins may have balked because Reboulet struggled at the plate last year -- hitting just .222 -- but he is a decent contact hitter who can do the little things that keep an offense in gear. His best season was 1995, when he hit .292.
"Last year, I think he got caught up in trying to be a .300 hitter and made things rough on himself," Kelly said, "but he can hit enough and he can do the things that kind of player has to do to be successful."
The Orioles likely will open the season with two utility infielders, since Alomar will be on the bench the first five games serving his suspension for spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck, but Reboulet is more concerned with being around in October.
"One of my goals is to be on a World Series champion," he said. "I haven't reached that goal."
Exhibition opponent: L.A. Dodgers
Site: Vero Beach, Fla.
Time: 1: 05 p.m.
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson vs. Dodgers' Ismael Valdes
Pub Date: 3/04/97