A healthy outlook

Having rehabbed more than retooled, the Orioles are convinced that keeping their veterans injury-free will give the team a vigorous boost.

Spring Training 2002

February 14, 2002

Orioles pitcher Josh Towers stood inside the clubhouse during a recent workout at Camden Yards, his hands clutching three bottles of water as he scanned the nameplates above each locker. He made a full circle while recalling the dizzying number of injuries that stripped any promise from the 2001 season and accelerated its decay.

"That's why we struggled at times, because everybody got hurt," he said after coming to a stop. "I mean, who didn't get hurt?"

Everyone in the front office down to the lowest levels of the organization knows who can't end up hurt in 2002. As the Orioles continue to inject youth into their system, they still need certain veterans to provide a shot in the arm.

It begins today with pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the start of spring training. And it begins at the top of the rotation, where Scott Erickson most likely will reside after rehabilitating from ligament-transplant surgery in his right elbow that has kept him out of competitive games since July 2000.

It extends to shortstop, where Mike Bordick's absence last year had a ripple effect that the Orioles gladly would trade for calmer waters. And it stretches across the infield to first base, which David Segui vacated so often that he needed to leave a forwarding address.

Few people would challenge the importance of Erickson's remaining healthy, because last year's No. 1 starter, Pat Hentgen, needed the same surgery in August and might not pitch again for the Orioles. The team couldn't fill the leadership and competitive voids left by Hentgen's absence after May 16, and it doesn't want to revisit the horror of last season, when rookies accounted for 49 starts and the Orioles tied a club record by using 23 pitchers.

And they certainly don't want to remove the utility tag from Melvin Mora and make him the everyday shortstop, which might happen if Bordick vanishes again. A shoulder injury June 13 sabotaged his return to the organization and pushed rookie Brian Roberts into regular duty before he was prepared for it.

Segui's presence is so crucial to the Orioles' chances of ending their streak of four straight fourth-place finishes that manager Mike Hargrove said he's "toying" with the idea of using him mostly as the designated hitter - a plan Segui will challenge upon reporting to Fort Lauderdale next week. But it's an understandable option. Segui made two stops on the disabled list, never seemed to gain momentum because of his susceptibility to injury and illness, and appeared in one game after Aug. 23.

Tale of two seasons

The Orioles were two different teams last season. Early, they were plucky rather than pushovers with a veteran anchoring the rotation and Bordick and Segui part of the batting order. They reached .500 on May 27, and a 14-14 June represented the team's first non-losing month since April 2000. Having won five of seven games in Chicago and Toronto to lift their record to 39-42, the Orioles were swept by the New York Yankees and lost two of three to the Philadelphia Phillies to close the first half.

Finding it harder to cover their deficiencies, which grew with Segui on the bench, the Orioles went 23-51 after the All-Star break and finished 63-98. It was their worst record, and the furthest they had been under .500, since going 54-107 in 1988. Never before had the franchise posted four consecutive losing records.

Never before had the importance of a veteran influence been so obvious.

"When we had everybody healthy or the majority of our people healthy, we were a competitive ballclub," said Hargrove, who wrote out 139 different lineups. "We were five games over, five games under .500 for the most part. Then Segui went down, Bordick went down, Hentgen went down. All of a sudden, we played like kids will play. We didn't have that consistent leadership and settling influence that we needed."

"Usually the veteran players are your star players," said Ed Kenney, a special assistant to Syd Thrift, the Orioles vice president for baseball operations. "Certainly Segui being one of our top offensive players and Bordick being a stabilizing player, and last year having Hentgen go down, that would hurt any team."

The injuries seemed to reach every corner, every age group. Rookie Jay Gibbons had 15 homers in 73 games before breaking the hamate bone in his right hand on Aug. 4. Mora, Towers, pitcher Sidney Ponson and outfielder Chris Richard were counted among the wounded, and the season ended with nine players on the 60-day disabled list.

Hargrove often looked down his bench, only to find a backup catcher as his only healthy reserve. And that was after rosters expanded in September.

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