Minor acquisitions, major surprises?

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Minor-league free agents again fertile ground for team's rebuilding plan

March 24, 2002|By Joe Christensen and Roch Kubatko | Joe Christensen and Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - While other teams were adding the likes of Jason Giambi, Chan Ho Park and Juan Gonzalez, the Orioles took a much quieter approach to free agency this past off-season.

Rodrigo Lopez, Luis Garcia, Ryan McGuire and Mike Moriarty might not be household names, but they're right in the thick of the competition for the final spots on the Orioles' Opening Day roster.

The Orioles signed all four of those players as minor-league free agents, meaning they will be headed to Triple-A Rochester if they don't start the season in Baltimore.

"We have some tough decisions, and that's a sign of progress," said Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift. "When you don't have tough decisions, then you've got a problem."

The Orioles had a big problem last season, when a string of injuries forced Thrift to move inexperienced minor-leaguers into everyday big-league roles.

This created a domino effect because holes then had to be filled at Triple-A, Double-A and down through the organization.

"That will make you work harder," Thrift said. "It was like a nightmare."

The Orioles refrained from signing the big-ticket free agents - their costliest acquisition was Marty Cordova for three years, $9.1 million - and focused on adding depth.

Thrift put an emphasis on signing six-year, minor-league free agents, and the Orioles came to camp this year with 12 such players. Others still in camp include Travis Driskill, Lee Marshall, Izzy Molina and Sean Runyan. Six-year free agents are players who have played all or parts of seven seasons in the majors or minors and were not placed on a major-league team's 40-man roster as of Oct. 15.

Moriarty will likely make the roster as a utility infielder, and Lopez is a favorite to make it in long relief. The final roster spot could come down to McGuire and Garcia, a 26-year-old switch-hitting center fielder who played the past three seasons in Mexico.

"We had our eye on Luis Garcia for over two years," Thrift said.

Thrift has had previous success with these acquisitions. In 2000, he signed Jose Mercedes as a minor-league free agent, and Mercedes wound up leading the Orioles with 14 wins. A year ago, the Orioles signed Willis Roberts as a six-year minor-league free agent, and Roberts is now in the running for the closer's job.

"That," Thrift said, "is a tribute to our scouting people."

Marshall keeps hopes up

With a week remaining before the Orioles reach the end of their Grapefruit League schedule, Marshall can take some comfort in knowing he's still here.

That's about as close as Marshall comes to being certain about anything. He has no idea if he's still in the running for a bullpen job, if the 6 2/3 scoreless innings over six appearances are enough to carry him to Baltimore.

"As long as I'm here, that's what matters," he said. "This is my first big-league camp. The longer I stay here, the better. I'm getting to know guys."

The Orioles are getting to know him, too.

They're seeing the same pitcher who posted a 1.83 ERA and saved seven games in 17 appearances with Azucareros of the Dominican Winter League. The pitcher who recorded 13 saves with a 2.24 ERA last season while splitting time between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Edmonton in the Minnesota Twins' organization. The pitcher who didn't allow a run in nine consecutive appearances spanning 10 2/3 innings after his promotion.

"I'm just trying to go out and throw good innings," said Marshall, 25, who signed as a minor-league free agent in November. "I'm not trying to make the team with one appearance."

There's room for Marshall if the Orioles carry five right-handers in their bullpen, but because he's primarily a fastball pitcher, they most likely will want him to expand his repertoire in the minors.

"Lee's done everything we've asked him to do," manager Mike Hargrove said. "He can sink the ball but he also can ride it in on right-handed hitters. And he's a strike-thrower. That's pretty much what you want."

Around the horn

Hargrove said he won't make final cuts until after the team heads to Atlanta on Friday. ... Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight, a friend of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, attended yesterday's game. ... Encouraged by the improved feeling in his left elbow, John Bale threw in the bullpen for about 10 minutes yesterday while trying to return to regular duty. A magnetic resonance imaging and arthrogram test didn't show any structural damage or bone fragments. Bale has been receiving treatment to reduce the inflammation.

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