Leon keeps doing what Orioles ask, remains on roster

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Natural third baseman is willing to play outfield

August 09, 2002|By Roch Kubatko and Joe Christensen | Roch Kubatko and Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

When the Orioles called up Jose Leon from Triple-A Rochester in June, he expected to stay with them through the 15 days that Jeff Conine spent on the disabled list, then return to the minors and wait for another chance.

Conine's hamstring injury kept him out for 45 games, long enough for the Orioles to make a few other personnel moves that didn't remove Leon from their active roster. Chris Richard came off the DL, and Leon stayed. Conine was activated, and Leon stayed.

The Orioles needed outfield help, and Leon stayed.

That's where the season has taken another interesting twist for Leon, a third baseman at Rochester who has made 13 starts at first with the Orioles and only one at his natural position.

Manager Mike Hargrove and bench coach Sam Perlozzo approached Leon before Wednesday's game to find out if he could play the outfield. Marty Cordova's injured foot occasionally forces him into the designated hitter role, leaving Melvin Mora to fill in while Hargrove finds someone else to play shortstop.

Conine's return gives the Orioles another option in left, but they prefer keeping him at first base and moving Jay Gibbons to right.

Leon told the club he could help out, noting his previous outfield experience in Puerto Rico and in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. After the Cardinals signed third baseman Fernando Tatis to a sizable contract, they instructed Leon to try the outfield at Double-A so he wouldn't be blocked.

Most of his outfield innings have come in right, but Leon said moving to the other side presents no problem. He shags balls there before games, taking grounders at third and first before joining Cordova and Mora in left.

"I'm ready to go wherever they need me. I'll try to do my best," he said. "It's going to be better for me. I'll be prepared wherever they want me."

The club will consider Leon as its starting third baseman in 2003 if Tony Batista moves to short, or consider him for a utility role similar to Conine's before he became a regular again last season.

"There are a lot of options for me," Leon said. "If they need me in the outfield, I can get my glove and start catching fly balls."

Hairston strains muscle

Jerry Hairston strained an abdominal muscle diving for a ball in Wednesday's game and was not in the lineup yesterday.

"Hopefully, I'll be ready to go [today]," Hairston said. "[Wednesday], it felt like somebody was stabbing me."

Hairston is batting .345 in his past 17 games. He felt the brunt of the pain after his final at-bat Wednesday. Hargrove and trainer Richie Bancells went to check on him before the ninth inning, but Hairston stayed in the game.

"I said, `Jerry don't go out here and play the hero,' " Hargrove said. "We were going to make some other moves, and it would have put us in a bind if he would have had to come out in the middle of the inning. He said he was fine."

Who will be sent down?

The Orioles will wait until later today to activate Jason Johnson from the disabled list and announce a corresponding move.

Johnson is starting tonight's series opener against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. But who will be sent down to make room for him?

The logical choice is rookie John Stephens, who made his second major-league start Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays and shut them out over his last four innings.

Asked about the likelihood of Stephens returning to the minors, Hargrove said, "Let's wait on that."

That's all Stephens can do - wait on the club's decision.

"I have no idea what's going to happen," Stephens said before heading to the bullpen to throw. "Even if I do go down, I proved that I can pitch here. That might help get me here in September, or sooner if something happens."

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