O's cover gap in center

Trade for Singleton brings No. 1-2 bat, fleet center fielder

Harris goes to White Sox

Career .283 hitter has 54 steals in 3 years

Mora utility man again

January 30, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Looking to bolster their defense up the middle and lineup near the top, the Orioles addressed both matters with one transaction yesterday, acquiring outfielder Chris Singleton from the Chicago White Sox for minor-leaguer Willie Harris.

Singleton, 29, becomes a preferred alternative to Melvin Mora in center field. Mora will spend part of spring training rehabilitating a fractured finger on his left hand and is deemed more valuable in a utility role.

The trade represents only the second significant addition to the Orioles' roster since last season. Marty Cordova signed a three-year contract on Dec. 4 after the club released popular veteran Brady Anderson. Most of Cordova's starts probably will come in left field, with Jeff Conine the early favorite to patrol right unless he's needed at first base.

Singleton made 121 of his 140 appearances last season in center, recording eight assists overall and compiling a .991 fielding percentage. He ranked third among American League center fielders in 2000 with a .992 percentage and totaled nine assists.

The Orioles are just as intrigued by his offensive potential. A former second-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, Singleton is a career .283 hitter with 54 stolen bases in three full major-league seasons. He batted .298 with seven homers and 45 RBIs last season, as the White Sox slipped to third place in the AL Central after winning the division the previous year.

Singleton batted .318 during the second half, with his average peaking at .305 on Sept. 5 before a 2-for-14 slump in his last four games. He hit in every spot in the lineup, but was most effective batting second, where he posted a .319 average. The White Sox were 23-12 when he hit second.

"It's up to the manager and coaching staff," said Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations, "but if you look at his past performances, the No. 2 hole is where he's been most productive."

Shortstop Mike Bordick could move atop the order if Singleton winds up hitting second. Jerry Hairston also has certain tools for the job, but must cut down on his swing. Mora was a candidate to bat leadoff before Singleton's arrival.

Singleton finished sixth in AL Rookie of the Year balloting in 1999 after hitting .300 with 17 homers, 72 RBIs and 20 steals. His power numbers have steadily declined, but he batted .357 over the final two months last season after compiling a 13-game hitting streak earlier in the summer. Singleton batted .360 with runners on base and ranked third in the league with 14 sacrifice bunts.

The knock on Singleton has been a reluctance to walk and failure to take advantage of his speed and athleticism. He had 12 steals last season and was caught 11 times. Adept at running down balls from side to side, he wasn't as strong going directly back.

Arbitration-eligible for the first time, Singleton agreed to a $1.4 million contract on the day figures were exchanged. His name surfaced in trade talks during the winter meetings, with San Francisco and Texas expressing interest.

The cost of bringing Singleton to Baltimore was relatively cheap, which has been a pattern with him. The New York Yankees traded Singleton to Chicago on Dec. 8, 1998, for left-hander Rich Pratt, whom they released in the spring.

Harris was named the Orioles' minor-league Player of the Year after batting .305 with 54 stolen bases at Double-A Bowie, but pro- jects more as a utility player because of his ability to move from second base to center field.

Harris, a 24th-round selection in the 1999 draft, batted .125 in nine games with the Orioles. He was blocked at second base by Hairston, with Brian Roberts and Mike Fontenot also possibilities. Luis Matos should inherit center field after gaining more experience at Triple-A Rochester, and Tim Raines Jr. ranks among the organization's top prospects.

"We like Willie Harris, but we really like Chris, also," Thrift said."We've been pursuing Chris for some time. He's an outstanding center fielder. When I polled all our managers, coaches, scouts, it was unanimous. This guy brings a lot to the field for us."

Thrift said the Orioles were interested in free-agent outfielder Troy O'Leary, who later in the day signed a minor-league contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Infielder John Valentin worked out for the club, but no longer is a consideration. "We're not going to go that route," Thrift said.

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