Third base No. 1 on O's wish list

VP Thrift says team `absolutely looking' for Ripken successor

`There is a particular need'

Tatis, Nevin, Lamb eyed in possible deals

May 15, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after notifying the future Hall of Famer of his status as a part-time player, the Orioles have begun exploring trade possibilities for a successor to third baseman Cal Ripken.

"We are absolutely looking for a third baseman," vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift confirmed earlier this week. "We are always trying to find players to better our situation, but I think from an organizational standpoint, there is a particular need" at third base.

Thrift did not link the organization's search to Ripken's anticipated retirement after this season; however, recent conversations between club officials and Ripken coupled with rookie Mike Kinkade's inconsistent showing when afforded greater playing time have intensified a search for outside help. The Orioles have longstanding interest in San Diego Padres third baseman Phil Nevin and are intrigued by Fernando Tatis of Montreal and Mike Lamb, who backs up Ken Caminiti in Texas.

Thrift downplayed the possibility of an imminent move, saying the club is still determining which players may become available in the 10 weeks before the July 31 waiver deadline.

Thrift terms the current situation "kind of complex" because the Orioles are not only interested in acquiring a third baseman, but also in obtaining a certain demographic. Thrift would hope to add a player in the same age bracket as outfielder Chris Richard (26), Kinkade (28), outfielder Melvin Mora (29) or catcher Brook Fordyce (31) - all acquired through trades since last July 28.

"I would prefer someone who was in that situation," Thrift said. "Ideally, they would have more playing time but roughly the same age."

Ripken and the club have communicated little since manager Mike Hargrove notified the third baseman of the organizational stance April 21. Hargrove said then that the move was part of an organizational blueprint to determine which of the recently acquired players could produce.

The club believes such determinations require giving greater opportunity to its younger talent. Rookie Fernando Lunar has unseated Greg Myers as backup catcher, Richard has been designated an everyday player and Ripken's playing time has been cut to two to five games per week.

Ripken, 40, began the season in a 1-for-19 funk but has rebounded since learning of his diminished playing. The combination of Kinkade's offensive struggles and an ankle sprain have restored some of Ripken's time. The veteran enters tonight on a seven-game hitting streak with two home runs and 13 RBIs along with a .215 average. Three of the team's most veteran players - Ripken, Delino DeShields and Brady Anderson - are hitting a combined .200.

Ripken, who has started 28 of 38 games at third base, could not be reached to comment yesterday.

Publicly committed to development, the Orioles find themselves struggling for offensive consistency. They begin tonight's two-week homestand hitting .234 and are last in the league in home runs.

"The most important thing we can do now is be totally prepared to make the right decision," Thrift said. "I don't think you should overreact when you lose games. You've got to stay your course."

Ripken's one-time heir, Ryan Minor, was traded to the Expos last December for reliever Jorge Julio, a raw talent who had never pitched above Single-A. Julio began this season at Bowie, was added to the 40-man roster and given a two-game look with the Orioles, then returned to the Baysox.

The Orioles remain short on position prospects who can be projected as part of next season's roster. At third base, Thrift concurs, the situation is especially acute.

The club recently promoted Jose Leon from Double-A Bowie to Rochester. Leon, 24, was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals last July for Will Clark, who retired after last season. Leon has never played in the majors and may become a minor-league free agent should the Orioles not add him to the 40-man roster by Oct. 15.

"You have to know where they are in their growth and development. That's the critical thing," said Thrift, speaking of the team's less experienced crop in general. " ... When you build a championship team, you try to avoid expecting beyond what a player's capacity might be."

Tatis, 26, carried a career .276 average into this season. He enjoyed a breakout season in 1999 with the Cardinals, hitting 34 home runs with 107 RBIs. He also stole 21 bases that season.

Nevin, 30, is a late bloomer who hit 55 home runs in 1999-2000 and drove in 107 runs last season while hitting .303. The Orioles, Padres and New York Yankees tried to negotiate a three-team deal last summer. That would have sent Myers to the Padres and brought Nevin to Baltimore.

Lamb, 25, debuted last season with the Rangers, hitting .278 with six home runs and 47 RBIs. An inelegant fielder who made 33 errors last year, he is expendable as Mark Blalock is considered the Rangers' future at third.

However, the team's horrific start has caused ownership to contemplate a salary dump that could jettison Caminiti and provide Lamb another chance at the job. At the same time, the Rangers are desperate for pitching and might be swayed by what the Orioles can offer.

Should the Orioles pursue a deal with a small-market partner, it is virtually certain they would have to dip into their pool of young pitching. Club sources indicate that Sidney Ponson is not immune from being discussed after enjoying "untouchable" status for several years.

Thrift, meanwhile, denied on Sunday knowledge of a plan to ask Anderson to waive his no-trade privilege but, according to club sources, a desire exists to deal the veteran and his $6.2 million salary.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Dave Mlicki (3-2, 5.02) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (0-3, 6.23)

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