Power is low, but Orioles aren't turning off HR light

March 23, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The lights at Camden Yards worked just fine last season, but when the Orioles played, there was usually a power shortage.

The Orioles finished with the second-lowest home run total in the American League, with 136. Only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had fewer, with 121.

Orioles camp has been a surprisingly optimistic place of late - they have 12 wins in their past 14 exhibition games - but this is one area where the team isn't kidding itself.

"We don't have a lot of power on this team," manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday. "I mean, we really don't. Tony Batista and Jay Gibbons are the two legitimate power guys. I'm talking about guys who can hit 30-plus home runs. Other than that, we've got a lot of guys who can hit anywhere from 15 to 25."

A year ago, Gibbons and Chris Richard tied for the team lead with 15 home runs, one more than Jeff Conine. Richard played most of the season, while Gibbons played just 73 games before breaking a bone in his right hand.

Batista hit 25 home runs last season, and 13 of those came with the Toronto Blue Jays before the June trade that brought him to Baltimore.

The Orioles are eager to see what Batista and Gibbons can do over a full season at Camden Yards, which should be an easier home run park than it was a year ago. Before last season, the club moved home plate back from the outfield fences, but it scrapped that experiment after only one year.

Home plate is back in its original place, making it 333 feet down the left-field line, 410 to left-center, 400 to dead center and 318 to right.

"That's definitely going to help," said the left-handed-hitting Gibbons. "If we can stay healthy, we definitely have more power potential than we had last year. Top to bottom, everyone in the order can hit home runs."

The key is balance. The Orioles have been careful not to make Gibbons feel like he has to be the next Barry Bonds. Gibbons just turned 25 this month. He had 225 at-bats last season, and before that, he had never played above Double-A.

One of Gibbons' greatest strengths is the ability to hit to all fields, and Hargrove doesn't want him to forget it.

"We talk to Jay continuously about that," Hargrove said. "A guy with Jay's swing, and the strength that he has, is going to run into 25 to 30 mistakes a year - just naturally. So if we can convince him of that, he's going to be OK."

Gibbons has just two home runs in 66 at-bats this spring. He is batting .212, but Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley says those numbers are deceptive.

"Quite honestly, he could have 10 home runs right now in spring training," Crowley said. "The wind has blown in like a gale force from right field everyday. He's come along a lot faster than I thought he would, to be honest with you."

Hargrove has been slotting Gibbons fifth in the batting order, between Conine and either Marty Cordova or Batista. David Segui, who has missed the past week with a strained Achilles' tendon, bats third.

When healthy, this will represent the heart of the Orioles' order. If each player matches his career best season, home run-wise, this is how it would look: Segui (21), Conine (26), Gibbons (15), Cordova (24) and Batista (41).

Batista hit those 41 home runs two years ago for Toronto, but he insists he doesn't feel pressure to duplicate it this season.

"If I hit 30, and those guys hit 30, we're going to be all right," he said. "The younger guys look pretty good, and we've got veteran guys like Conine, Segui and Cordova. Those guys can make you pay."

Asked about this team's power potential, Segui wrinkled his brow.

"Home runs are for the highlight shows, like `SportsCenter,' " Segui said. "We're running the bases more aggressively and playing better defense. That's how you win ballgames."

Indeed, home runs don't necessarily translate into victories. The Texas Rangers led the American League with 246 last season but still finished 73-89.

Hargrove remembers the 1981 Kansas City Royals advancing to the AL playoffs despite hitting just 61 homers. It was a strike-shortened season, but the Royals of George Brett, Willie Wilson and Hal McRae played 103 games.

Of course, Hargrove also managed Cleveland Indians teams with the likes of Jim Thome, David Justice, Manny Ramirez and a healthy Albert Belle.

"It's a comforting feeling," Hargrove said, "going into the eighth inning, knowing that if you're three runs down, you get a couple guys on, somebody hits a home run and you're right back in it.

"That's sure a comfort, but it's not a necessity."

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