The Orioles' pressing need for outfield help became much clearer yesterday when the club confirmed it will likely be without Chris Richard through next season's All-Star break because of rotator cuff surgery performed on his left shoulder earlier this month.
Richard, a regular presence in the middle of the Orioles' batting order last season, required a major repair of an area that prevented him from playing the outfield after Sept. 8. Anaheim Angels orthopedist Dr. Lewis Yocum performed the surgery to repair a partial tear.
Richard's unavailability, coupled with Friday's release of veteran Brady Anderson and a lack of breakthrough candidates from within, creates what is possibly the club's largest void.
"We really have to make sure we sign an outfielder. That's our goal - to sign or trade for one outfielder, possibly two," vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said last night.
Thrift confirmed Richard's surgery as "somewhat complex" and speculated that he suffered the injury by diving or running into a fence.
"They really couldn't tell how much was old and how much was new," Thrift said, referring to a previous shoulder injury Richard suffered as a minor-league player with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Richard could not be reached to comment yesterday.
The degree of damage surprised an organization that initially denied and later downplayed the severity of Richard's injury. The 27-year-old left-handed hitter received a sharp reprimand from the Orioles' front office after he related to reporters his discomfort and his plans to seek outside medical advice. Richard's shoulder pain increased dramatically during a Sept. 4 start in Oakland. Four nights later, while playing right field in Seattle, Richard was unable to reach the infield with a throw.
Limited to designated hitter chores during the season's final month - his injury did not cause discomfort while batting - Richard finished with a .265 average, 15 home runs and 61 RBIs.
Though the Orioles confirmed surgeries to first baseman David Segui and catcher Fernando Lunar shortly after the season, the club did not release details of Richard's Nov. 4 surgery.
Richard likely won't throw again until after spring training and undergo extensive rehabilitation to regain strength in the shoulder. Meanwhile, the Orioles must find a productive bat to place within an outfield that now looks to include Jeff Conine and either Jay Gibbons or Melvin Mora.
Thrift said last night that the club will first explore the free-agent market before pressing for a trade. The Orioles have entered talks for Cincinnati Reds outfielder Dmitri Young. Such a deal would cost them either starting pitcher Sidney Ponson or Jason Johnson, leaving Thrift in a wait-and-see mode. "We're really trying to preserve our pitching as is," Thrift said. "We're going to look at those free agents available first, then go from there."
The Orioles deny rampant speculation that they are prepared to become players for San Francisco Giants free-agent left fielder Barry Bonds while a significant faction has lobbied against pursuing Cleveland Indians free-agent right fielder Juan Gonzalez. The Orioles appear more likely to bid for second- or third-tier free agents Moises Alou, Johnny Damon, Kenny Lofton and Marty Cordova. New York Yankees free-agent first baseman Tino Martinez could fill the Orioles' obvious need for left-handed power, but he is also coveted by the Cardinals, among others.
Richard's is not the only injury confronting the Orioles. Top pitching prospect Richard Stahl has undergone surgery to repair his left shoulder and is considered questionable for spring training. Outfielder Keith Reed, considered by many to be the Orioles' top position prospect while being exposed to next month's major-league draft, recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.
Thrift said Reed's recovery should require no more than several weeks and did not factor in his decision to leave him off the Orioles' 40-man roster.
"Anybody can take anybody," said Thrift of the possibility Reed, 23, may be selected by another team in return for a $50,000 drafting fee and a guaranteed spot with its major-league club.
"We evaluated all the people in our organization. I guess he was the 41st person. We went back and forth on a pitcher vs. the [position] player. We could lose him, sure. We could lose other people. Whether they can keep him all year [on a major-league roster] that's the final question."