Orioles run with new tag on offense without Belle

Bat production built on speed over power

March 10, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Now what?

The Orioles needed only to glance yesterday at the empty locker that until Thursday night belonged to Albert Belle to confirm he is no longer part of their present.

Their next move is to contemplate what his absence will mean to an offense short on experience and power but long on flexibility and aggression. For the first time in years, the Orioles are an American League team in name only.

The description offered by vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and manager Mike Hargrove suggests an interchangeable outfield, a rotating designated hitter and a new philosophy based upon on-base percentage, stolen bases and "little ball" more than the organization's traditional homage to power and big innings.

Belle's degenerative hip condition brought about his admission this week that he can no longer play the game he once dominated. The Orioles placed him on the 60-day disabled list Thursday night and acknowledged he will never again play. Now, the team Belle left behind must find a way to compensate for the 23 home runs and 103 RBIs he gave them in an off year.

"We definitely have to go a different route," said utility player Jeff Conine, among the candidates to hit fifth in a reconfigured lineup. "We can't rely on Albert in the [No.] 4 slot, picking up his customary 100-plus RBIs. There's going to be a little bit of a different look.

"I think we've got better team speed this year. We'll have to be fundamentally sound and scrape for more runs rather than rely on a big bopper to knock in everybody."

These aren't your father's Orioles. First baseman David Segui now projects as their cleanup hitter, though he has driven in 100 runs once in an 11-year career and hit 20 home runs once.

Cal Ripken, five months shy of his 41st birthday and four weeks removed from last swinging a bat, is among the mix projected by Hargrove to bat fifth.

Coming off a season in which they ranked 11th in the American League in runs and were outscored by a total of 119 runs, the Orioles project a starting lineup that features only one player, Mike Bordick, who homered 20 times last season. Segui owns the roster's only 100-RBI season (2000) since 1996.

Base-to-base ball

"I think we'll compensate with aggressive, intelligent base running," Thrift said moments before Thursday's announcement. "On average, teams make three significant base-running mistakes a game. Those mistakes represent runs. If you eliminate those, you've improved your production."

Said Hargrove: "You can change players, but if you don't change a mind-set, you haven't gotten anywhere."

The mind-set began to change last September, when Belle missed 20 games because of his hip condition. The Orioles ended the season leading the league with 126 steals in 191 attempts. Base running has been a focal point in camp, with Hargrove interrupting one halfhearted drill with a lengthy, obscenity-laced challenge to anyone not interested in participating. The drill resumed with purpose.

Thrift insists he is not scouring the market for a trade, though the Orioles are now positioned to acquire a hefty contract from a mid- or small-market team.

The Orioles entered camp with a glut of outfielders that suggested a trade of Delino DeShields or Conine might be in order. Thrift concedes that Belle's departure alters that equation.

"I never said I was going to trade one," Thrift said. "But I would say absolutely, yes [the diminished chance of a trade] is correct."

Hargrove projects a rotation among Segui, Chris Richard, Brady Anderson and DeShields at first base, the corner outfield positions and designated hitter. Assuming Ripken returns in time from a fractured rib to man third base on Opening Day, Conine would be the DH against left-handed pitching.

"We're in a much stronger position than we were in a year ago," Thrift said. "We just don't have outfielders, we have outfielders who can play different positions. And we have competition for positions, which is the best motivational speech in the world."

Richard's chance

Richard stands to benefit most from Belle's departure. Acquired last July from the St. Louis Cardinals, he excited the club's fan base with 13 home runs and 36 RBIs in 199 at-bats -- numbers projecting to 33 home runs and 90 RBIs given 500 at-bats.

"I look at what I did last year and think about what I might do this season," Richard said yesterday. "I think I showed some people what I can do. I showed myself, too."

Primarily a first baseman last season, Richard will move to what he feels is his more natural station in right field.

Whatever transition occurs has long been anticipated. Few who saw Belle attempt to run believed he would make the team as a legitimate offensive force.

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