Roster iffy, Hargrove still delivers optimism

At FanFest, manager says healthier hitters will help

Baseball

February 02, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

With fewer than two weeks remaining before his pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove can make only certain projections and critiques regarding his 2003 roster.

It's difficult to grade a work in progress.

Club executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan continue to pursue another hitter for the lineup after the Orioles finished last in the American League in batting for the second consecutive season. Hargrove understands that a major trade, perhaps involving a third team, could provide some needed punch in the order. He's aware that a few smaller-scale deals could be finalized before camp breaks in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Until then, he appears satisfied with this winter's modest gains, including shortstop Deivi Cruz, left-hander Omar Daal and reliever Kerry Ligtenberg. And he's not lamenting the inability to sign potential impact players such as catcher Ivan Rodriguez and outfielders Cliff Floyd and Jose Cruz, no matter how badly they were needed in Baltimore.

"Going into the offseason, I think all of us anticipated being able to add a bat a little more readily than we've been able to. I almost hesitate to say that, though, because I don't think it's disappointing that we haven't so far," Hargrove said during yesterday's FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center, which attracted more than 11,000 fans.

"There are obviously more ways to add offensive help than just the free-agent market. I know there are ongoing conversations with clubs about hitters and people who are a good fit for us. Whether anything happens for us, I don't know. But what's encouraging is we've added to what we felt was a pretty good pitching staff."

Part of Hargrove's optimism about the roster comes from the expected addition of players within the organization who weren't available to him for critical stretches of the summer. Gary Matthews, expected to be the center fielder on Opening Day, is healthy after going the last 36 games without a plate appearance because of a wrist injury. And first baseman David Segui is swinging the bat from both sides of the plate after surgery on his left wrist and missing the last 122 games.

Factor in the two months that Jeff Conine missed with a pulled hamstring, and the painful wrist that limited Jay Gibbons' production and a foot injury that plagued Marty Cordova all season, and Hargrove finds it easier to understand how the Orioles lost 32 of their final 36 games after reaching .500 on Aug. 23.

"The cumulative effect of the people we had missing throughout the season finally caught up to us," Hargrove said. "We're a better club offensively than we showed the last five weeks of the season."

Segui has played in only 108 games over the past two seasons since signing a four-year, $28 million contract in December 2000. Though his injury-filled past makes it difficult for the Orioles to project him as a regular presence in their lineup, reports on his physical status this winter have been encouraging.

"From everything I've heard, he's healthy and he'll be ready to go when he comes to spring training," Hargrove said. "The same goes for Jay Gibbons. And I told Conine that I'd shoot him if he pulled another hamstring, and he assured me he'd be OK."

Hargrove is more guarded about his rotation, which includes an extra starter after Daal signed as a free agent. Scott Erickson will attempt to pitch with a small tear in his labrum, but he already was a health riddle while continuing his recovery from Tommy John surgery in August 2000. Erickson was shut down after making a spot start Aug. 31 and falling to 5-12 with a 5.55 ERA.

"Scotty says he's ready to go, but we'll have to see," Hargrove said. "Realistically you've got to wonder how ready he'll be."

Hargrove indicated yesterday that Sean Douglass and Steve Bechler will be given a chance to crack the rotation, but Rick Bauer is more likely to return to the bullpen. He also listed Jerry Hairston and Matthews as the sole contenders to lead off.

Of course, nothing is etched in stone with so many players and trade partners available and with a roster that should be surrounded by orange cones until construction is complete.

"I'm sure something's brewing that they want to get done before spring training ends," Conine said.

"We're still trying to be patient," Flanagan said, "and remember that it's not the guys you don't get so much as the guy you ultimately end up with."

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