Richard put in position to thrive

O's ready to hand right-field spot to promising hitter

March 12, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Without learning everything, Chris Richard learned enough during January's FanFest.

The Orioles had just signed David Segui to a four-year, $28 million contract, seemingly incongruous with public comments about getting younger and committing to rebuilding from within. But that was before manager Mike Hargrove sought out the 26-year-old during the team's winter festival to tell him things would work out.

"He told me I'd get my 350 or 400 at-bats," Richard said. "He didn't have to tell me that, and I didn't have to really hear it, but it was nice to know."

Though Richard played first base in all but one start after being acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals as part of the July 29 trade that sent reliever Mike Timlin to the National League, he was projected within this season's outfield mix. A mix that was to include Albert Belle, barring a total degeneration of his right hip.

"I really wasn't concerned about it," Richard said of his playing time this year. "I thought all along they would find an opportunity for me. And I'm sure they will."

The equation simplified with Thursday's announcement that Belle would be placed on the 60-day disabled list - and for the remainder of his five-year contract, if necessary - because of excruciating pain that made it impossible for him to sprint or slide.

Richard, seemingly the odd man out in January, now projects as the Orioles' man in right field on Opening Day.

Though the Orioles went along with Belle's assertion last month that he was walking into camp as starting right fielder, the club knew better. The day after FanFest, Belle underwent an exam by Towson orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein. Belle remembered receiving clearance to fully participate in spring training. The Orioles remember learning Belle's hip likely wouldn't support him for another season.

Hargrove has guaranteed Richard's place in his outfield rotation even before becoming comfortable with pronouncing his name - the manager is among those who habitually refer to the left-handed hitter as "Richards." But there is no confusion about the potential of a baby-faced talent who batted .276 with 13 home runs and 36 RBIs in only 199 American League at-bats.

"I think it's very fair to project those numbers," Hargrove said last week. "He showed enough last year to believe it wasn't a fluke. He's a good athlete, and he's got a power hitter's bat speed. He's going to get a shot to show what he's capable of."

A quadriceps injury slowed Richard early in camp, but his recovery has coincided with Belle's departure. He is quickly reacclimating himself to the outfield, a position he played in college.

"I'm fine with it," Richard said. "I've always liked it out there; I just haven't played there as much the last few years. I can play it."

It beats the alternative. Had the Orioles not acquired him, Richard probably would still be slotted behind home-run king Mark McGwire, toiling another year at Triple-A Memphis.

Richard did everything he could to help himself last summer. Even before he reached the Orioles, he homered in his first major-league at-bat on July 17. Just as impressive as his numbers is a tight, descending stroke that makes his power most obvious to the deepest part of a ballpark. The philosophies imparted to him by Cardinals minor-league hitting instructor Mitchell Page are similar to those espoused by the Orioles' king of swing, Terry Crowley.

A year ago, Richard could be viewed as a supplement to the Orioles' evolving clubhouse. Given Belle's de facto retirement, he becomes a central component of a lineup that must search for power. Hargrove has even suggested this spring that the Orioles will sacrifice outs for runs this year.

"It'll probably be different for Chris this year," said catcher Brook Fordyce, who, like Richard, will probably enjoy his first season with more than 350 major-league at-bats. "Now, when teams have their pitchers' meetings before a series, they'll talk about him - how to work him, his strengths and weaknesses. When you're up for a couple months in a new league, there's less of that."

Richard enjoyed three multi-homer games and twice had five RBIs in a game. On Sept. 3 against the Cleveland Indians, he tied the club record with 13 total bases. Had a ninth-inning line drive fallen into right field instead of being caught, he would have hit for the cycle and gained a 14th base.

"I was pretty happy with what I accomplished last year," said Richard. "But there are still things I need to work on, particularly hitting in certain situations."

Like many young players, Richard has yet to distinguish himself as a two-strike hitter or with runners in scoring position. He is projected as a No. 5 or No. 6 hitter, and his improvement in both categories will say much about whether the Orioles exceed the minimal expectations for their offense. He struggled for power in only 39 at-bats against left-handed pitching.

"He's still young. He's going to get better," said Fordyce. "He's an intelligent hitter. You watch him swing and he's always balanced. When the time comes this season for him to [make] adjustments, I'm sure he will."

The adjustments began last Wednesday, when, eight weeks after learning the first part of an organization's answer, Richard discovered the rest.

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