The Orioles' outfield situation became more clouded over the weekend, when projected center fielder Melvin Mora suffered a broken finger in a winter league game in Venezuela.
Mora fractured his left ring finger during a collision at second base and will be in a cast for the next four weeks. The injury was evaluated yesterday in Baltimore by Orioles orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein, who estimated that Mora could resume baseball activities about the time the Orioles open full-squad workouts in late February.
"It might be less than four weeks," Mora said. "Once spring training starts, it should take about two weeks to get ready. When they start playing [exhibition] games, I can be ready."
The club probably doesn't have to worry about his being in good overall condition when he completes the healing process. He has remained in playing shape throughout the winter and the injury was to his glove hand, so he will be able to run and throw from the first day of spring training.
Still, the injury creates more uncertainty in the outfield, where Mora figured to start between newcomer Marty Cordova and either veteran Jeff Conine or emerging slugger Jay Gibbons. The Orioles have indicated they would prefer to hold back top center-field prospect Luis Matos for another year of minor-league seasoning, but Mora's injury increases Matos' chances of starting the season in the major leagues.
The Orioles continue to seek more outfield depth in the free-agent market, but Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said the injury would not have a significant impact on that effort.
"I'm still seeking," Thrift said. "We're still on the same course with what we're trying to do, and I believe we'll be able to do something."
The club apparently is not interested in veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton, who was rumored to be headed toward Baltimore earlier in the off-season. The Orioles may continue to talk to Braves general manager John Schuerholz about reacquiring veteran B.J. Surhoff, but have so far been unable to persuade the Braves to absorb some of Surhoff's 2002 salary.
Thrift and Schuerholz are taking part in a celebrity quail hunt in Georgia this week, so they could talk informally about a deal in the next few days.
Mora was playing winter ball for the Magallanes Navigators of the Venezuelan Winter League. He would have taken part in the playoff finals this week if he had not been injured.
"I was diving headfirst into second base," Mora said. "The shortstop ran across, and I hit his leg. The place went completely quiet. The people were disappointed I wouldn't be able to play in the finals."
Mora will spend the rest of the off-season in Baltimore with his wife and six children.
NOTE: The arbitration hearing for Orioles starting pitcher Sidney Ponson has been set for Feb. 20 in Tampa, Fla. Ponson, coming off a 5-10 season, filed for a salary of $2.9 million after earning $2.1 million in 2001. The Orioles countered with a $2.5 million figure. The relatively small difference between the two increases the likelihood that Ponson and the club will reach a settlement before the hearing.