Leon may be with club for the long haul

ORIOLES PLUS

Infielder isn't flashy, but he gets job done

July 14, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Two years after the Purge of 2000, maybe it's a little easier for Orioles fans to understand.

The names leaving Baltimore were so familiar: Mike Bordick, Mike Timlin, Charles Johnson, Will Clark, Harold Baines and B.J. Surhoff.

The names entering the Orioles' system were so strange: Melvin Mora, Brook Fordyce and even lesser-known players such as Chris Richard, Luis Rivera and Mike Kinkade.

In the trade that sent Clark to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Orioles received a Double-A third baseman named Jose Leon. Clark went on to replace an injured Mark McGwire and hit .345 with 12 home runs in 51 games with the Cardinals, helping lead St. Louis to the National League Championship Series before he retired.

All Orioles fans could think was, "Who's Jose Leon?"

But over the past four weeks, in the same quiet manner as so many of this team's young players, Leon has established himself on the Orioles' big-league roster. And there's a chance he might be around for a long time.

The Orioles are examining their contingency plans at shortstop, in the event they cannot re-sign Bordick, who came back after being traded to the New York Mets and has said he'll contemplate retirement after the season. One option is moving third baseman Tony Batista to shortstop, his original position, and filling third base with Leon.

"We've talked about a possibility like that," Syd Thrift, vice president for baseball operations, confirmed last week.

Naturally, under that same scenario, the Orioles will consider trading for the likes of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen. But as the Orioles were reminded last off-season, All-Star position players in their prime don't come cheap. And as they learned with closer Jorge Julio, sometimes the best solutions are found from within.

Leon, 25, is not flashy, but he has a cannon-like arm, and his numbers suggest he can hit.

After splitting last season between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Rochester, Leon hit .344 in big-league camp this spring with 11 hits in 32 at-bats before being shipped back to Rochester.

When first baseman Jeff Conine went on the disabled list June 15 with a strained right hamstring, the Orioles promoted Leon, who was hitting .300 with eight home runs in the Triple-A International League.

To fill Conine's spot at first base, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has platooned Leon with Jay Gibbons. Leon has made nine starts at first base and is batting .278 with two home runs.

"He had a pretty nice spring, and then he went to Rochester and played well, which is what you're supposed to do," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "A lot of times, guys have good springs, and then go to whatever level, and for some reason the focus isn't there, or the drive. But he had that, and he's come here and had some really, really nice games for us."

The Orioles hope to get Conine back from the disabled list soon, but they likely will keep Leon on the roster and demote seldom-used Ryan McGuire.

Leon said he will take whatever opportunities the Orioles give him. He is just grateful to be here after some frustrating seasons in the Cardinals' organization. He felt stuck there when they kept him at Double-A Arkansas for back-to-back seasons.

"When I got traded, it was a new beginning for me," Leon said. "It was a good feeling, and my career turned around, big-time."

Leon grew up in Puerto Rico, idolizing Roberto Clemente. His own career began to blossom after he started playing winter ball with the likes of Carlos Baerga and Ruben Sierra.

Thrift watched Leon go 1-for-4 in the 2000 Futures Game in Atlanta, and traded for him less than a month later.

"I saw an outstanding throwing arm, I saw good hands, and I saw power," Thrift said. "At that time, he was a pull hitter, a fastball hitter, and I knew he had the tools at [third base] to be a major-league player."

Thrift knew it would take time before the Purge could be fully analyzed. Mora has become the Orioles' everyday leadoff man, and Fordyce has become the team's backup catcher. Richard hit 15 home runs for the Orioles last season, but he underwent shoulder surgery in November and continues to have setbacks in his recovery process.

Rivera has had shoulder surgery each of the past two springs and hasn't pitched since shortly after he arrived in the Surhoff trade. And the Orioles let Kinkade go after giving him a brief audition last season as Cal Ripken's replacement at third base.

So Leon has emerged as one of the few surprises in the deal.

"He can hit the ball, and he's got a good eye," Crowley said.

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