Hargrove: O's to play Ripken less

Manager says move is driven by youth, not performance

Everyday status at end

Decision is made to give Kinkade more playing time

April 25, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - Saying the move is related to organizational direction rather than individual performance, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove last weekend notified third baseman Cal Ripken that the club's enhanced commitment to younger, developing players will further slice into his playing time, thus effectively ending the 40-year-old All-Star's status as an everyday player.

The Orioles will give more playing time to Mike Kinkade, according to Hargrove, leaving Ripken to play between "two to five times a week."

"Cal may play one or two times a week less than before," Hargrove said before last night's opener of a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers. Ripken was not in the starting lineup for the second time in three games and the third time in the past five games. "There are going to be some weeks when he's going to play three times, some weeks when he might play five times, and some weeks when he plays two times."

The move is the team's most blatant admission that it intends to phase out its most veteran position players in order to provide opportunity for less-experienced talent. Hargrove said the move was made after meeting with vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift.

"We've got to find out about our younger guys," Hargrove said. "If we look up this summer and these guys haven't played, what we've done has gone for nothing."

Ripken, four months shy of 41, has never failed to start consecutive games when healthy. He didn't express surprise at the move and said he did not believe his diminished playing time was attributable to three sluggish weeks at the plate. However, he added: "I guess it would be a surprise if I had 20 hits in my first 40 at-bats."

"It's not performance-related on Cal's part," Hargrove said. "It's a situation I thought could possibly happen. It's all predicated on what Kinkade has showed."

Kinkade, 27, was acquired from the New York Mets last July 28 as part of a four-player package for shortstop Mike Bordick. Because he lacks minor-league options, the right-handed-hitting utility player can't be demoted to Rochester without first clearing waivers. A career .335 minor-league hitter, Kinkade started at third base last night, going 3-for-4 to raise his average to .385. Only reserve catchers Greg Myers and Fernando Lunar have fewer at-bats than Kinkade.

Ripken has labored at the plate after a spring training abbreviated by a fractured right rib. Complaining of timing slow to return, he entered last night with a .154 average and six RBIs in 52 at-bats. He hasn't homered in 77 combined at-bats between the exhibition and regular seasons. He has yet to have a multi-hit game in 15 starts.

"I need at-bats on the field to get going," Ripken said. "Very rarely do you find it just in the batting cage. I'm still getting the opportunity for at-bats. It's just a matter of me stringing something together when I get some swings."

Asked if he now considered Ripken a part-time player, Hargrove hedged. "Not in the true sense of it," he said. "If you took out a dictionary, the definition might fit. But I don't consider Cal a part-time player. He's not a full-time player, but he wasn't a full-time player last year."

Ripken played a career-low 83 games last season because of a recurrence of lower-back pain that landed him on the disabled list for much of the second half.

Those health problems forced Ripken onto the disabled list last June 28-Sept. 1 and were related to season-ending surgery in September 1999 to alleviate stenosis in his back. Despite his back condition, Ripken has been a productive player the past two seasons, hitting .300 with 33 home runs and 113 RBIs in 641 combined at-bats. He has compensated for physical discomfort by making constant adjustments to his batting stance, pre-game routine and off-season workout schedule.

"The irony of this is that I'm feeling better now than at almost any time I can remember in the past few years," Ripken said. "I'm comfortable playing. I feel I've done some very positive things in the field and the rest is coming around."

The Orioles signed Ripken to a one-year, $6.3 million contract before the future Hall of Famer filed for free agency for the first time in a 21-year career. While Ripken has remained publicly noncommittal about his future, many believe this will be his final season. Major League Baseball has assigned a film crew to periodically document his year. Ripken did not place the organizational decision about his playing time in a broader light, saying only: "Without overanalyzing it, I think they're looking at a lot of things right now."

"It always makes it more difficult when you're talking about an All-Star and a future Hall of Famer," said Thrift. "It's not an easy thing, but you have to give these other players an opportunity."

Ripken is not being singled out. Outfielder Brady Anderson finds himself in a time-share arrangement with Chris Richard, Melvin Mora and Delino DeShields. Anderson has missed only two starts but partly because of several minor injuries to first baseman David Segui.

"It's not just Cal," Hargrove said. "It's the situation this team is in. My assumption is we will all adjust to it."

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