JUPITER, Fla. - A year ago, the Orioles had to keep Jay Gibbons on their roster or risk losing him. This spring, they can't keep him out of their lineup.
No longer tethered by Rule 5 draft rules, Gibbons is beginning to project as more than a bench player for the Orioles. He started again in right field yesterday, stroking a second-inning double in a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Expos. Though his batting average has lagged, his loud at-bats and improved play in the outfield are hard to ignore.
"If we were to break [camp] today," said manager Mike Hargrove, "Jay Gibbons would probably be the everyday right fielder."
Gibbons is batting .212 in 11 games, but his five RBIs are tied for the club lead. He has one home run, and about five other balls that should have slammed off the metal bleachers.
It seems like every Gibbons at-bat in Fort Lauderdale has been accompanied by a strong wind blowing in from right. He crushed a ball during Sunday's game that died on the warning track, a scene that's been repeated many times.
"I got all of that one, but I knew it wasn't going to be gone. I hit it too high. The wind's pretty bad out there," he said.
"I've hit five balls there that, off the bat, you kind of know they're gone. None of them have gone out. It's been kind of funny. The guys are getting on me now, like, `Make an adjustment.' But I want to stay with what I'm doing because at Camden Yards, I think they'd be out. I'll take 30 flyouts in spring if I hit the ball that well.
"It's been a little frustrating, but April 1 is what matters."
His immediate future with the Orioles is taking shape in March. A defensive liability last season, when as a Rule 5 draftee he had to stay with the club all season or be offered back to Toronto, Gibbons has made diving catches in left and right, and gotten better reads on more routine balls. He's also displayed "an average to above-average arm," Hargrove said.
"And he's swinging the bat very well. If the wind's not blowing in 100 mph every time he hits, he'd have six home runs."
Projecting how many Gibbons will collect has become as popular among the Orioles as filling out NCAA tournament brackets. He hit 15 in 225 at-bats last season before breaking the hamate bone in his right hand during an Aug. 4 game in Toronto.
"If he gets 500 [at-bats], he'll have 30. I don't think that's unreasonable," Hargrove said. "I understand that puts pressure on Jay that if he doesn't have 30 home runs, he'll have an unsuccessful season. That's not what I'm saying at all. It's just that, if you project what he did last year, that's the number you come up with. His swing, his strength, he's a power guy."
Jeff Conine says that Gibbons could hit 40 homers if he makes the proper adjustments to pitchers, and adapts to whatever adjustments they make with him.
"I do look at the 15," Gibbons said, "but I remember I hit like one home run in 100 at-bats, so I'm definitely a streaky guy. Once I get that swing down, they usually start going. It's hard for me to predict 30 or whatever, but I'm sure I'm capable of something like that.
"I just want to get at-bats. That's my main goal. And I think the home runs will come."
With his strength, they'll often come by accident. Gibbons carries the physique of a cartoon superhero, with muscles bulging from arms that look like they could bend steel. Just reaching out for some balls provides enough momentum to redirect them over the fence.
"Remember the one he hit off [Greg] Maddux in Atlanta? It was a joke," Conine said.
An avid weightlifter, Gibbons altered his workout routine to reduce the muscle mass in his chest and provide greater flexibility. He no longer does heavy chest presses, substituting pushups instead, and has lost about 15 pounds in the process.
"He's a little more free in his movements, a little less stiff," Hargrove said. "We all felt like he was too restricted up top. Obviously he did something to reconfigure his body."
He's done enough rehabbing to heal his right hand and wrist. Gibbons left the Dominican Winter League because of discomfort and weakness that no longer exist.
"It feels good to be turning on balls again. I haven't had to go the other way as much. I just can't get pull happy," he said.
Before the August injury, which occurred while swinging the bat, Gibbons remained one of the Orioles' primary power sources despite needing treatment each day on the wrist. He was hit by a pitch near the end of spring training and dealt with "nagging pain" throughout the summer.
"It would have its good days and its bad days. Pretty much on and off all year," he said. "You get used to playing with it, where you say, `Just deal with it.' I wasn't trying to make an excuse. But the last few weeks before I broke it, I knew something was really wrong."
Enough so that he warned rookie outfielder Larry Bigbie to stay ready. "I told Bigbie the day before, `Something's wrong here,' " he said. "Sure enough, the next day I broke it."
A season ended for Gibbons that night at SkyDome. Each day he puts on the uniform this spring offers more promise for the one that awaits.