Only 400 at-bats? Carter hopes for more

March 26, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Joe Carter's track record is that he plays nearly as often as Cal Ripken. Since 1986, he has averaged 158 games in non-strike seasons. He also has averaged 626 at-bats -- even more than Ripken, who usually hits lower in the order.

Now Orioles manager Ray Miller is telling Carter he might get only 400 at-bats this season. Carter says club officials projected a more significant role when they signed him in December, and isn't sure how he will adjust to the reduced playing time.


"What they're saying now and what I was told back then is not exactly the same thing," Carter said yesterday. "I don't know if they had a change of plan or what. Four hundred at-bats was never mentioned to me.

"I said I didn't want to be a platoon player and play only against left-handers -- there are not enough left-handers in the league. I'm a guy who produces if you put me out there every day. If it's going to be sporadic, who knows what you're going to get?"

Not Carter, not Miller, not anyone.

This isn't going to turn into Bobby Bonilla II -- Carter, one of the classiest players in the game, will do what is best for the team. Still, the Orioles could face a problem. Even if Carter accepts his role, he might not be good at it.

"He's a free swinger. At-bats are important," Miller conceded. "He's got to get up a lot to do a lot of damage. But hopefully with this club, he'll get more pitches to hit than he's used to getting."

That way, Miller figures, everything would balance out. Carter would produce his usual numbers and finish his marvelous 15-year career with perhaps another World Series ring.

Carter, 38, needs 22 homers for 400, a number that virtually guarantees Hall of Fame induction, and 118 RBIs for 1,500, a total reached by only 30 players in major-league history. He plans to retire at the end of the season.

So, how is Miller going to divide playing time among all of his LTC outfielders and designated hitters? Good question. Important question. Maybe even a defining question of Miller's first season.

His outfield includes Brady Anderson, B. J. Surhoff, Eric Davis and Jeffrey Hammonds. His left-handed DH is Harold Baines. Carter will get playing time at both spots, and also at first base, where he could spell Rafael Palmeiro.

"I'm going to try to contain Davis, especially initially," Miller said. "I think I've got to hold him at a 100-game pace. If I do that, it ## frees up playing time for Hammonds. It also gives me a chance to go with Hammonds and Carter in the outfield if I rest either B. J. or Brady."

Hammonds, 27, has to play -- he's one of the Orioles' few young talents, and he just signed a three-year, $6 million contract. Surhoff and Anderson want to play. Baines will be the DH against most right-handers, and Miller said he also would use Davis in that role.

Where does that leave Carter?

Starting against most lefties, and fighting for playing time against righties. At least that's how it looks to start the season. Both Hammonds and Davis have been injury-prone in the past, so the equation could change.

"I think it'll all work," Miller said. "There's always going to be somebody unhappy. But with this club, if you give a guy a day off, there's a pretty good guy going in there."

General manager Pat Gillick said that Carter likely would determine his own fate.

"How he plays might determine how much he's going to play," Gillick said. "If the guy comes out burning the doors off, he might play more than I or the manager anticipate.

"If you sit here and project how much he's going to play, it's probably between 350 and 450 at-bats. But if he burns the doors off, he might play more."

Gillick said he believes that the Orioles might get more production from 1,800 at-bats spread among four players than the same amount spread among three. That might very well be true, but it leaves Carter in a familiar baseball Catch-22:

He won't play unless he hits. He won't hit unless he plays.

"My understanding was that I would get a lot of at-bats," Carter said. "There's nothing you can do now. I'll just go out there and put up some numbers. I'm not worried about that."

He shouldn't be -- Carter has failed to produce 100 RBIs only twice in the past 12 seasons. The first time (1988), he finished with 98. The second time ('95), he lost 18 games due to the players' strike.

The difference is, Carter was an everyday player then -- he even had a streak of 507 consecutive games from '88 to '92, the second longest to Ripken's at that time.

Those days are over now.

"There are a lot of things you've got to do differently," Carter said. "You've got to find a way to keep yourself ready to play, do a lot of extra work before games and after when you're not playing. It's going to be a learning process. As long as we win, who cares?"

No, this isn't going to turn into Bonilla II, not the way Carter carries himself. Still, Miller can write only nine names in each day's lineup, and his clubhouse is full of veteran workaholics.

Carter is just like the rest of them.

He wants -- and needs -- to play.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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