In potential, he's at top of O's order

Jerry Hairston: The second baseman has all the tools to be the Orioles' next leadoff hitter, but he needs to reach base more to lessen the doubts about him.

February 19, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It has been a long time since anyone had to worry about who would bat at the top of the Orioles' lineup. Brady Anderson was a fixture there for more than a decade before the club decided to go in a new direction in 2002. Now, someone needs to step up and take his place.

Manager Mike Hargrove has given that a lot of thought over the past few months. He has sorted through a list of candidates that includes veteran shortstop Mike Bordick, new center fielder Chris Singleton, outfield prospect Luis Matos and even a few names that might not ring a bell with the average fan. But he kept coming back to the same guy ... and the same questions.

Second baseman Jerry Hairston might be the whole package, and then again, he might not.

"If I could pick one guy I'd like to do this, it would be Jerry," Hargrove said. "We're going to do everything we can to get him to, because he's the ideal guy."

Hairston can run. He can bunt. He can hit for average. He showed in the minor leagues that he had all the tools to excel at the front of the order. If only he had put it all together in his first full major-league season, the leadoff job would be a slam-dunk.

He played in 159 games last year and batted just .233, but the number that has raised doubts about his suitability to bat leadoff was his .305 on-base percentage - well below the American League average (.331) for leadoff men in 2001. In 91 at-bats at the top of the order last season, his OBP was just .250 - clearly insufficient for a team that will need all the offensive production it can get to be competitive this year.

"No doubt about it, I can do better," Hairston said. "My on-base percentage is going to go up. I'm a better hitter than that. I expect to have a very good season. I'm not even thinking about last year. I'm not thinking about anything negative. Last year is over."

Hargrove does not have the luxury of disregarding the 2001 season, because it provides an important reference point in the decision-making process. He can't wait around to see if things get better. He needs to find out over the next few weeks if Hairston is willing to make the mental and mechanical adjustments necessary to be the classic-style leadoff man the Orioles have envisioned as the right replacement for Anderson.

"He knows that," Hargrove said, "but in the next two or three days, we'll sit down and have that conversation."

If it comes down to how much Hairston wants the role, there shouldn't be a problem.

"I want to be that catalyst," he said. "I just always saw myself as a leadoff hitter. I think I can be a spark plug. I like to be in the thick of things."

There are other candidates to win the job, but none has the all-around potential that Hairston brings to the top of the lineup. He stole 29 bases last year batting mostly in the ninth slot, a total that figures to go up markedly along with a substantial rise in on-base percentage. He also has enough pop to hit the ball out of the park, though the temptation to take the big swing is one of the things that he'll have to suppress to reach base more often.

"I think that Jerry loves challenges," said Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations. "I think Jerry has the attitude that he's going to do what's necessary. If you look back at the minor leagues, he had a higher on-base percentage. He was batting mostly ninth here. Some players respond to where they hit in the order."

Hairston was an on-base machine in the minor leagues, with a .382 percentage over four minor-league seasons and a .392 mark in his final stop at Triple-A Rochester. Those numbers, of course, coincided with much higher batting averages against lesser pitching, so there's more to it than just remembering what he did to be successful in the minors.

"I think the biggest thing I need to worry about being a leadoff hitter is how do I get better as a player," Hairston said. "I want to be a complete player. I worked extremely hard this off-season working with my dad [former major-leaguer Jerry Hairston] on my hitting. We have a game plan, whether it involves being a leadoff hitter or not.

"I want to be patient at the plate, but I still have to be aggressive. If you get a good pitch, take a good hack."

No one doubts he can be the leadoff hitter the Orioles are seeking. It's just a matter of whether he will embrace all that goes with the job and accept advice from outside the family.

"He's got the ability to be a good hitter regardless of where he bats in the order," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "If the organization decides to hit him in the leadoff spot, I think Jerry will accept that challenge and try to be as good as anybody in the league."

The motivation won't be just personal. Hairston, like a lot of the holdovers from last year's 98-loss team, still is trying to shake the sting of a very frustrating 2001 season. He seems convinced things will be different this year.

"It had better be different," he said. "The guys don't want to go through what we went through last year. We'll have Bordick and David Segui all year. I think Jay Gibbons is going to step up. Marty Cordova will do a great job, and Chris Singleton is a great acquisition for us.

"I want to be the leadoff hitter, obviously, but I don't make out the lineup card. I want to be there if that's where they think I can help the team. It was very depressing last year losing like we did. I want to win some games this year."

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