O's position themselves to get ahead of game behind the plate

With 6 catchers in camp, team keeps options open

February 27, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles fell out of the running for Ivan Rodriguez last month when the Florida Marlins tripped them with a surprising $10 million offer to the free-agent catcher. Their quest for a cleanup hitter, someone who makes opposing managers nervous instead of his own, would have to continue.

So, too, would their close scrutiny of the position.

"If we can upgrade," said vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan, "we'll upgrade."

With Syd Thrift no longer in the front office, holdovers Geronimo Gil and Brook Fordyce - players he acquired in waiver-deadline trades - lost their most avid supporter. Last season, Gil became the first Orioles rookie to start at catcher in the opener in 36 years. Fordyce continued to collect on the three-year extension Thrift so generously handed him.

Approaching their first exhibition game today against the Florida Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., the Orioles still view Gil as their starter and Fordyce as the backup. But they also have shown interest in the Montreal Expos' Michael Barrett, and it's still possible an outsider could interrupt the arrangement.

Manager Mike Hargrove, careful not to give the impression his faith in the pair is wavering, said the Orioles' bid for Rodriguez was made more to "upgrade our offense." It was nothing personal with Gil and Fordyce, but when a 10-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner hits the market, you grab a cart.

"I don't see our catching being any different from last year as far as Gil being our No. 1 guy," Hargrove said. "And right now, Brook's our backup catcher."

Hargrove wants to use Fordyce more this summer after Gil, who was hitting .300 on May 23, batted .208 with 21 RBIs in his last 95 games. Gil also led the American League in passed balls with 19, providing a cumbersome counterbalance to his 36.3 percent success rate in throwing out base stealers.

Even as Gil faded, Fordyce stayed on the bench as if attached by screws, appearing in only 56 games and burdened with the embarrassment of a 1-for-31 start.

"I feel good with [Gil] behind the plate, and I feel good with Brook Fordyce playing," Hargrove said. "It may be that Brook plays a little bit more than he did last year and we try to keep Geronimo a little bit stronger.

"Geronimo didn't have a bad rookie year. In fact, he probably had a real typical rookie year, so we certainly look for better things from him offensively. Behind the plate, there are some things he did that he got a little lazy in doing, and those were addressed and are being addressed again."

First base coach Rick Dempsey, who works with the catchers, said Gil showed up at camp in better shape and with an improved attitude.

"Chief, you can tell he's a lot more focused," Dempsey said. "He doesn't have a lot of experience behind home plate, but already he's made the little adjustments it takes to receive the ball better. He's a lot more open-minded. I think he trusts a little bit more this year. Because of the language barrier, you just don't buy into things as quickly as you normally would, and I think Chief realizes I'm in his corner all the way.

"Catching has a lot to do with being confident back there, and when you've got a lot of questions in your mind while that ball's on its way, you're going to miss some of them. And it snowballed on him last year when he got tired the second half of the season."

Gil built up a sweat in the Mexican winter league, appearing in 21 games at first base, 12 in the outfield, six at catcher and one at third base. He also served as designated hitter nine times.

"I need to work on everything - hitting, catching, throwing," said Gil, who batted .266 with six homers for Obregon. "And I am working hard."

Fordyce also might have lost some focus last season, but much earlier than Gil. He batted .381 with three homers in spring training but relinquished his starting job, as Hargrove chose the stronger arm over the heftier average.

"Those first two months, he took the job - April and May. If he had faltered, maybe I would have gotten a shot, but he took the job and went off with it," said Fordyce, who batted .231 and hit his only homer on May 30.

Dempsey said Fordyce, who batted .322 after joining the Orioles in 2000, let down once Gil was named the starter.

"I think when Geronimo Gil came in last year and got most of the playing time, he was kind of upset about that and didn't deal with it very well," Dempsey said. "This year, Brook hasn't stopped working on every little thing that went wrong for him."

Said Fordyce: "Was I a little let down? I took the attitude of being ready every day, but subconsciously, I don't know. Maybe it was like, `Don't worry about it, you're not going to play anyway.' "

Fordyce, who batted .209 in 2001 after being named the starter in camp, is concentrating on his mechanics behind the plate, improving his footwork and speed in transferring the ball from mitt to hand.

"I would be happy if he could throw out close to 30 percent. I think he can get up there," Dempsey said. "Catching is a rhythm and timing position - when to start moving your body when you see that guy break at first base."

The Orioles have six catchers in camp, including Eli Whiteside, their top prospect at the position, who ended last season at Double-A Bowie. They signed former Boston Red Sox farmhand Steve Lomasney and Carlos Mendez, who batted .324 at Triple-A Sacramento last year.

"This is probably the best working group I've had in the major leagues," Dempsey said.

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