First lineups turn focus to O's roster

Closer, fifth starter, No. 2 catcher are open

February 25, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - As the first lineup cards of spring training are written out for today's intrasquad game, the Orioles also begin to see their roster taking shape. Though many of the images are crisp, others remain hazy, with sharper focus coming as the daily routine expands beyond the assorted meetings and drills.

This much is clear: The Orioles want to keep 12 pitchers, two catchers, six infielders and five outfielders. The trick is figuring out where to categorize players such as Melvin Mora, Jeff Conine and Jay Gibbons and narrowing the various competitions in camp, with a fifth starter, closer and backup catcher among the unsolved riddles.

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, said before yesterday's workout that it makes sense to retain a pure utility infielder to complement Mora, who also offers assistance in the outfield. Mike Moriarty holds a slight edge over Brian Roberts, who needs regular at-bats that probably won't come at the major-league level. "I think it's more important that Brian play every day," Thrift said.

Eddy Garabito would have joined the fray except for his inability to obtain a work visa in the Dominican Republic. Garabito was named the top rookie during the winter league season, but hasn't gotten the chance to make a further impression on club officials.

"That's the case I pleaded Friday to Major League Baseball. It's very important for this young man to be here, not three weeks from now or two weeks from now," Thrift said.

If nothing else, the Orioles should have more depth in the minors compared with last season, when a string of injuries left them depleted.

Young prospects were rushed, which had a domino effect on the farm system, and valuable space was lost on the 40-man roster. Thrift began hoarding minor- league free agents this winter to fill any cracks that might develop and avoid revisiting what he called last year's "nightmare."

"I try not to remember that," Thrift said. "But I guess you learn from things."

Such as not keeping three catchers on the Opening Day roster, a logjam that was loosened on June 14 by releasing Greg Myers to make room for Roberts, who was called up from Triple-A Rochester when shortstop Mike Bordick went on the disabled list.

A bench of Myers, Gibbons, infielder Mike Kinkade and catcher Fernando Lunar didn't provide much flexibility. But Rule 5 draft restrictions - Gibbons had to stay in the majors all season or be offered back to Toronto - and the elimination of available minor- league options on certain players made constructing a 25-man roster more difficult.

A projected starting lineup includes outfielders Marty Cordova, Chris Singleton and Conine, and infielders Bordick, Tony Batista, Jerry Hairston and David Segui. Gibbons could become the regular designated hitter and occasional starter at first base and the outfield. Either Geronimo Gil or Lunar will join catcher Brook Fordyce, and Mora will come off the bench. With a 12-man pitching staff, that leaves two more position players in reserve.

The Orioles will have three spots open on their 40-man roster when Pat Hentgen, Albert Belle and Chris Richard are placed on the 60-day disabled list before April 1. Thrift confirmed yesterday that Richard, who had surgery on his left shoulder in November, won't be retained as a designated hitter in the early months.

"That will be three opportunities for someone here, or somewhere, to make the roster," Thrift said.

Besides Moriarty, the pure utility infielder the club didn't have when heading north last spring, other invitees with a genuine shot at making the club include Chad Allen and Ryan McGuire, who bring some major-league experience to camp. One of them could be kept as an extra outfielder and allow prospects Luis Matos, Tim Raines Jr. and Larry Bigbie to get more at-bats at Rochester.

Sitting in the dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday, his players gradually returning to the clubhouse, manager Mike Hargrove said: "There are a lot more options in camp than we had last year."

Some of them could extend outside of it, depending on who becomes available.

"If there's someone out there who fits better and makes us stronger with what we're trying to do, I'm sure we'll look at that," Hargrove said. "We like the people we've signed, but if a newer and better model comes along, we'll talk about it. We're not married to any of these people."

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