O's yet to flash sign for catcher

Hargrove puts off choosing starter

3 to begin season on roster

March 29, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - When a baseball organization decides to build around young pitching, the catching corps becomes a critical component unto itself, much like the jockeys hired to ride prize-winning horses.

It's a relationship built through confidence and trust. Pitchers have a better chance to reach their potential when they are comfortable with the guys behind home plate who give the signals, set the target and throw out opposing base stealers.

The Orioles have made that commitment to pitching, but for the moment, their catching corps is still somewhat unsettled. Three days from the season opener, manager Mike Hargrove has yet to name his starter back there.

Hargrove has conceded the Orioles will likely carry three catchers on their Opening Day roster - Brook Fordyce, Geronimo Gil and Fernando Lunar - but he continues to say the No. 1 catcher could be any of those three.

"I've got a good idea, but I'm not ready to commit yet," Hargrove said yesterday. "We've got a couple days left, and I want to be sure of the health of the person that I'm thinking about, and a number of things. I'll talk with my staff and get their opinion and then make a decision from there. But I don't think now is the right time to do it."

Fortunately for Hargrove, his pitchers seem to view this as a no-lose proposition.

"I don't dislike pitching to any one of them," said second-year Orioles starting pitcher Josh Towers. "They all do a good job, they all have their strong points, and I think they all call a pretty good game back there. I haven't heard anyone complain, so that's always a good thing."

Considering Fordyce and Gil both have nearly twice as many at-bats as Lunar this spring, it appears to be more of a two-man contest, with Fordyce offering more experience and Gil, perhaps, a higher upside.

Hargrove said the decision might not be announced until Sunday, the day before Scott Erickson takes the mound against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards.

"We'll name a No. 1 catcher, and he will get the bulk of the playing time," Hargrove said. "It's not going to be, you play two days, this guy will play two days, and we'll flip a coin for the fifth."

The Orioles continue to search for trade possibilities because Lunar is out of minor-league options and Hargrove has said he would rather keep two catchers on the roster instead of three.

If the Orioles cannot make a trade, they might have to put Lunar through waivers or send Gil to Triple-A Rochester. The club bought itself extra time to make that decision when it placed No. 5 starting pitcher Calvin Maduro on the disabled list with a strained right forearm. When Maduro returns - likely for his regularly scheduled debut on April 7 - someone else will have to come off the roster. Barring another injury, it will likely be the third catcher.

"It's a tough, tough decision for Hargrove at this point," said Orioles first base coach Rick Dempsey, who works closely with the catchers. "I'd hate to lose any one of them to tell you the truth. Every one of them is a solid major-league catcher."

Fordyce struggled last season in the first year of a three-year, $7.7 million contract, batting .209 and throwing out just 19.1 percent of the opposing base stealers he faced. When Hargrove first said the battle for the starting catcher's job was wide-open, he was basically stripping that title from Fordyce, at least temporarily.

But Fordyce has responded well, showing a shorter swing that has generated more bat speed. After a slow start this spring, he is batting .375 with three homers, including the game-winning two-run shot yesterday in the ninth inning of a 9-8 victory over the Florida Marlins, and nine RBIs. He said it didn't bother him when told he would have to compete for his old job.

"Last year was the first year I didn't have to compete," Fordyce said. "But I'm used to competing all the time, and I don't mind that. I think everybody else should have a shot because if I was in their shoes, I'd want a chance to compete."

Gil's performance has intensified the competition, as, like Fordyce, he entered yesterday batting .342 and takes a .333 average into tonight's game against Atlanta. While Lunar is considered the best defensive player of the three, Gil, who has thrown out six of 10 players attempting to steal this spring, is the catcher other teams like the most in trade talks.

Having studied the situation, Gil understands he could wind up back in Rochester.

"There's nothing I can do about that," Gil said in Spanish, through Orioles coach and translator Elrod Hendricks. "That decision is still up to them. All I can do is show them what I'm showing them. If I have to go down, I'll work just as hard to get back."

Lunar, 24, who served as the personal catcher for four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux in Atlanta, is hitting just .211. His bat cooled after a hot start.

"If anybody thought he wasn't the offensive guy of the three, well, he could fool you because he's making great contact," Dempsey said. "With Fordyce, you can see he's not going to have the same year he had last year. There's been a lot of line drives off his bat, and the same for Gil.

"If I had to pick one guy right now, it would be a tough, tough pick."

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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