O's catch Webster flak

Catcher unpacks, but ready to move on

February 20, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Reiterating his concern over a less visible role, catcher Lenny Webster said yesterday that his December request for a trade remains in effect should the club find it impossible to guarantee him regular playing time given the addition of four-time Gold Glove winner Charles Johnson.

Part of the crush of pitchers and catchers that reported to Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday, Webster said, "I proved to people last year I can play on a daily basis. I put up numbers and thought I'd earned a shot. If that's not going to happen here, I'm sure somebody else could use me."

Webster's statement coincides with Chris Hoiles' admission that his days as a regular catcher are over due to sundry injuries. He arrives at camp as third catcher in name only.

Trying to clarify his standing, Webster met with manager Ray Miller Wednesday afternoon and received assurances that he would still receive ample at-bats.

"I'm a baseball guy. I know how this works," said Webster. "All I've got to go on is what the manager is telling me, and he told me I'll play and I'll get at-bats."

Miller tried to calm Webster's concerns, reminding him of the opportunity he received during Miller's first year as Orioles manager. "I gave him more at-bats than he had ever had before in his career," Miller said. "He'll get his time."

A career backup, Webster flourished last season as a de facto starter. His concerns are compounded by his approaching free agency.

"I'm happy for the team that we got C. J. He's a great player. But somebody could have called me afterward to give me an idea of what they were thinking. Nobody ever did. I was up in the air," Webster said. "This is a big year for me. I'm trying to put up some numbers. That's hard to do if you don't get a chance to play."

The Orioles did not acquire Johnson for reliever Armando Benitez so he could become a sometime catcher, however. Miller has previously projected Johnson playing at least 120 games, a number that would not accommodate Webster's desire.

Webster, 34, is coming off a career season as Hoiles' various injuries afforded him the opportunity to catch 102 games, including 79 starts, and receive a career-high 309 at-bats.

Webster responded by batting .285 with career highs in home runs (10), RBIs (46) and runs (37). Until the Orioles acquired Johnson via a three-way trade Dec. 1, Webster believed he would enter camp as the team's starting catcher. Now he is confronted by an uncomfortable time share where he is left scraps.

Miller has hinted that Webster will retain his role as Scott Erickson's personal catcher, a role that would ensure Webster at least 35 starts. But Webster says he needs 250-300 at-bats -- at least 60 starts.

"I'm not a fake person. I'm not going to say I'm happy when I'm not," Webster said. "I need to play. If I don't have a chance here I need to go somewhere I can play."

Despite ending the last two seasons with shoulder and elbow injuries, Webster chafes at suggestions that history argues against him as a starter.

Webster likewise disputes the relevance of his numbers against opposing base runners. Webster caught only 23 percent of would-be base stealers last year compared to 21.4 percent by the oft-criticized Hoiles. Johnson threw out 39.8 percent of base stealers last year and owns a 43.5 percent career success rate.

"Everybody knows our pitchers aren't among the best at holding runners," said Webster. "To use that is [nonsense]."

Hoiles was invited to arrive with pitchers and catchers but admitted that he is "blind" about his role with the team. After eight seasons as its starting catcher, Hoiles is projected as a platoon designated hitter alongside Harold Baines and a part-time first baseman behind Will Clark. This spring Hoiles will warm up pitchers but is not expected to receive significant playing time behind the plate.

"The days of me catching 120 games are pretty much over," Hoiles said, stowing his catcher's mitt inside his locker. "My body won't allow it."

Hoiles, 33, entering the final season of a five-year contract, reached the conclusion last summer when lower back pain made squatting almost unbearable. The discomfort eventually interfered in day-to-day activities, preventing him from sleeping and making simple tasks such as picking up his son, Daulton, a challenge. He started only 23 games as catcher after July.

"To me, it doesn't matter what I do," Hoiles said. "I've had the honor of being this team's starting catcher for the past eight years. Now things have obviously changed. I'm willing to do whatever Ray thinks I can do to help the team. If that means being the DH, fine. If it means playing some first base, fine. Whatever it is, I've got to find a way to produce."

Hoiles hit 15 home runs with 56 RBIs in a career-low 267 at-bats last season. However, his production has always been tied to receiving consistent plate appearances, something that didn't occur last season until June.

Miller says he intends to play Hoiles almost daily this spring either as designated hitter or at first base. "To play and get at-bats he needs to produce," said Miller. "I don't think it will come often as catcher."

Hoiles took delivery of three sets of catching gear yesterday. He quietly acknowledges that they may be lightly worn.

NOTES: For a second day, there was no decision in Johnson's arbitration case. The catcher is seeking a raise from $3.3 million to $5.1 million. The Orioles offered $3.6 million. The three-man panel could rule over the weekend. New Orioles outfielder Albert Belle stopped by to drop off some bats and sign autographs. Utility man Jeff Reboulet was the only other position player to make an appearance six days before they're due to report.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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