Decision on Garcia, Hairston anything but routine

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Utility infielder choice is no open and shut case

March 27, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has said he's hopeful of making the last of his roster decisions by Thursday, when the club finishes the Florida portion of its spring schedule. He'd like to know his fifth starter by then, as well as the composition of his bullpen. And there's the matter of settling on a utility infielder, a task that didn't appear as complicated a few weeks ago.

When Jeff Reboulet was traded to the Kansas City Royals during the winter meetings, Jesus Garcia clutched the baton. Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, brought up Garcia's name when explaining the club's willingness to part with such a reliable fielder as Reboulet. There didn't seem much room for debate.

Garcia lacked the experience, Thrift conceded, but it was time to give him a look. He had shown an ability to move around the infield, and offered at least the potential to bring more offense to the table than Reboulet, a career .238 hitter who batted .162 in 99 games last season.

Garcia has carried a pretty big stick this spring, bringing a .361 average and nine RBIs into yesterday's game against the Montreal Expos after going 2-for-4 in Saturday's 5-3 split-squad win over the St. Louis Cardinals. But he also leads the club in errors with five, mostly on errant throws. He chucked one wide of home plate that broke a tie in extra innings, and helped the Cardinals fatten a one-run lead on Friday when he bounced a throw past first baseman Jeff Conine.

On that play, Garcia paid for his skillful hands. He made a diving stop at shortstop on a bouncer up the middle, skidding on the infield dirt as he tried to rise to his feet, and hurried a throw that struck the railing in front of the Cardinals' dugout. Many players don't reach that ball. Garcia was rewarded with an error.

"I thought about that," he said. "I'm thinking, `Maybe I shouldn't have got to that one.' "

The Cardinals scored twice that inning to lead 4-1. Garcia, 26, who bent down and shook his head after the play, had provided the Orioles' only run with a second-inning single that scored Cal Ripken. But the miscue was more likely to stay with Hargrove, who suggested that Garcia might be pressing.

"Maybe in a sense I am a little bit, trying too hard," said Garcia, who was 0-for-1 yesterday in the Orioles' 8-4 loss to Montreal. "It's coming down close to the end and I'm trying to make something spectacular happen. But there are no excuses."

Just competition. And it's coming from Jerry Hairston, who often shared the middle infield with Garcia at Triple-A Rochester last season.

The two players can't escape each other's shadows. Garcia broke into professional baseball as a second baseman, twice being honored by Baseball America as the Eastern League's best fielder at the position. He moved to shortstop last year, where Hairston had played before sliding over to second in 1998.

Now, Garcia's trying to avoid being bumped by Hairston again.

Once thought to be vying with Delino DeShields for the starting job at second, Hairston could avoid a return trip to Rochester by filling the utility role. He started at second in Jupiter on Saturday while Garcia played shortstop, going 2-for-4 with a walk. He singled in his only at-bat yesterday after replacing DeShields at second, leaving his average at .378.

It's the only position he's seen this spring, but that soon could change. Hairston played third base his freshman year in college, and Hargrove is leaning toward using him there before the Orioles head north. Hairston took grounders at third during infield drills, the first time he's done so this spring.

"I would have been the top freshman at third base except for Pat Burrell," Hairston said, referring to the Philadelphia Phillies' first-round draft pick in 1998.

Keeping Hairston as a bench player would be a change of organizational thinking. Club officials had voiced a preference to have Hairston in a lineup every day, whether it was in Baltimore or Rochester. Unless there's a trade, he won't beat out DeShields at second. And unless Hargrove goes with 11 pitchers and an extra position player, there's less room for Hairston and Garcia to co-exist on the 25-man roster. That could happen only if Hargrove determines that DeShields and Conine are suitable as extra outfielders, making Rich Amaral expendable and freeing up more innings for Hairston at second.

Center-field options

DeShields hasn't played center field since March 18, but Hargrove said he'll probably put the Delaware native out there again before Opening Day "just to keep his hand in."

"I've been able to play DeShields enough down here to know that in a pinch he's serviceable in center field," Hargrove said.

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