O's Gibbons is back in swing

Orioles: Pain in his mending hand curtailed the young slugger's fall work, but Jay Gibbons is ready to take his cuts at winter camp Sunday.

Baseball

January 01, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Almost five months after breaking a bone in his right hand and ending a rookie season pocked by moments of promise and reminders of his youth and limitations, Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons will attempt to prove himself all over again.

Prove that he's healthy after surgery and an abbreviated stint in the Dominican Winter League. Prove that he belongs somewhere on the Orioles' 25-man roster this season, no matter how limited space might become.

The process begins with one swing, then another - the same seemingly innocent motion that caused his injury. When he reports to the minor-league complex Sunday, it will be the first time Gibbons has held a bat since he left the Azucareros team in November because of tendinitis that produced weakness and persistent discomfort in his hand and wrist.

Rather than accumulate the plate appearances necessary to accelerate his growth as a professional, he began rehabbing and exercising at a sports clinic in Tempe, Ariz.

The winter season lasted only three weeks for Gibbons, who hit 15 homers with the Orioles before fracturing the hamate bone during an Aug. 4 game in Toronto.

"I decided I wasn't quite ready," he said. "It just wasn't strong enough yet. I'd swing the bat and my top [left] hand would just take over. I didn't have enough strength yet. It wasn't really a lot of pain. It just wasn't strong enough and I didn't want to injure it again. We decided, as a team, to shut it down."

Gibbons, 24, said the tendinitis is gone, allowing him to report to Sarasota, Fla., Sunday. Assuming there aren't any setbacks - and Gibbons anticipates none - he vows to be ready by spring training.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm full go," he said.

"I just think I overworked it. It felt great for batting practice and all that, and I really thought I was going to be able to play. But batting practice is a lot different from a game."

Batting practice doesn't usually include checked swings or misses. "It just aggravated it a little bit. There was still a lot of scar tissue in there. But I don't have any pain in it anymore," he said.

Gibbons had the hand examined last month, and doctors at the clinic check it daily. "Strength-wise, it's as strong as my left one," he said. "I'm really not worried about it."

Such calm didn't exist for Gibbons in the Dominican. Eager to resume playing after his Aug. 8 surgery, he was home before Thanksgiving. "Anytime you're hurting again, there's always going to be concern," he said.

Gibbons appeared in 73 games with the Orioles in his first season above Double-A. He led American League rookies in home runs before the injury and fell only three short of New York's Alfonso Soriano despite bowing out of the race so early. Gibbons also set an Orioles rookie record by homering in four consecutive games beginning June 17.

Could this much have been expected from a Rule 5 pick, required to remain with the Orioles all season or be offered back to the Toronto Blue Jays for $25,000? Rather than burden them by occupying a roster spot, Gibbons brought some punch to a lineup that frequently had little else in its arsenal besides a few weak jabs.

Not that he's a lock to remain with the Orioles, or in the majors, next season. They were willing to include him in a modified package for Philadelphia third baseman Scott Rolen during the winter meetings. And with Marty Cordova plugged into left field after signing as a free agent, David Segui and Jeff Conine able to play first base or serve as the designated hitter, and outfielder Juan Gonzalez still available for the right price, Gibbons is getting pushed further into the background.

Or to the bench as a left-handed pinch hitter and occasional DH.

Or perhaps Triple-A Rochester, if not another organization.

"I saw they signed Cordova, but I don't know if they've done anything else. I just watch TV to see if they've signed somebody big," said Gibbons, who's scheduled to appear at Fanfest on Jan. 12.

"I really have no idea how this impacts me. I assume Cordova would play left field a lot. I know the DH spot is still open. As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to work hard in spring training and try to win a job somewhere. That's how I'm going to go about it, just like I did last year.

"Hopefully I can break into the lineup somewhere, but I'm not really worried about it. If I just go out and work hard, I think I'll be OK."

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