JUPITER, Fla. - Signed to a minor-league contract one day before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to spring training, B.J. Surhoff started in left field yesterday in the Orioles' exhibition opener against the Florida Marlins.
Manager Mike Hargrove warned against drawing conclusions based on his first lineup, but it's never too early for a little intrigue.
Left field is one of the few unsettled positions on the club. Once projected as the starter, Marty Cordova is expected to receive stiff competition from Surhoff, who would get the majority of at-bats even if Hargrove settled on a platoon because he's a left-handed hitter in a league dominated by right-handed pitching.
"If this was the third week of [games]," Hargrove said before the Orioles' 4-3 loss, "you could probably read more into it than the first day."
Surhoff bounced a single into right field on the second pitch thrown to him by A.J. Burnett. He also lined out to second baseman Luis Castillo and flied to right. Cordova, who replaced him in the fifth inning, allowed the winning run to score in the ninth by overrunning a bases-loaded single by Jesus Medrano. He also popped to second in his only at-bat.
Round 1 goes to Surhoff.
"What we do in left field depends on whether we carry an extra outfielder or two extra infielders," Hargrove said. "I think we've got some good candidates out there, good players like Surhoff and Cordova, just to name two. It ought to be a good competition. We'll see where it goes.
"If Surhoff makes the ballclub and we end up platooning in left field, that's not all bad."
Special consideration would be given to Surhoff's age (38) and his surgically repaired knee, which forced him to miss most of last season with the Atlanta Braves.
"B.J.'s still a good player," Hargrove said, "but he's not a spring chicken. I think we'd have to try to be careful and not play him too many games in a row."
Hargrove indicated yesterday that two of the outfield spots are secured. Gary Matthews should be starting in center field on Opening Day, with Jay Gibbons in right. Yesterday's lineup included both players in those roles, with Matthews batting second and Gibbons fifth.
"Unless something happens that they're physically unable to perform, I think we're looking at them being in the Opening Day lineup," Hargrove said.
Cordova began last season on the disabled list with a strained right quadriceps muscle, but he was most affected by plantar fascitis in his left foot - a painful condition that limited his use in the field.
"It went on all year long," said Hargrove, who has been given no indication that Cordova is bothered by the injury any longer.
Without the use of a designated hitter under National League rules, the Orioles batted Surhoff third yesterday instead of dropping him down in the order. Jeff Conine hit cleanup, the same arrangement as last season before a hamstring injury in June cost him 45 games.
The left fielder, whether it's Surhoff or Cordova, most likely will bat seventh this season, but final roster decisions hinge on the club's ability to acquire another hitter.
Hargrove still expects to use Conine primarily at first base and keep David Segui as his designated hitter - a concession to the injuries that limited Segui to 108 games over the past two seasons. Segui didn't make the trip yesterday.
Yesterday's lineup also included catcher Geronimo Gil, whose rookie season was scarred by his inconsistency at the plate and behind it and a work ethic that frustrated some of the coaching staff.
"I think we're seeing a more energetic Chief this spring," Hargrove said. "I think it's a combination of reasons - discussions we've had with him and him looking back on last year. This is his second full year, and maybe he feels a little more comfortable and like he belongs a little bit more. There were times last year when he didn't take charge the way he should have, and we're seeing him do that more now."
Taking an extended look at his potential roster for Opening Day, Hargrove said he's leaning toward a 12-man pitching staff when the Orioles break camp. Open dates in the April schedule reduce the need for a fifth starter, but for now, he's not committed to going with 11 pitchers.
Sorting through his starting candidates to create a rotation will be Hargrove's toughest task this spring.
"That's a good problem to have," he said. "We've got viable major-league pitchers."
Reducing his bench to four players would create an intense competition for one utility job among John Valentin, Jeff Reboulet and Brian Roberts. Barring a trade, three spots would be occupied by Melvin Mora, backup catcher Brook Fordyce and either Surhoff or Cordova.
Hargrove wants to use some of these games to evaluate Roberts in center field. The Orioles could trade Mora if Roberts is capable of doing more than filling in at second base and shortstop. Valentin brings more offense than Reboulet, who is regarded as the better defensive player. Valentin singled in his first at-bat after replacing Tony Batista at third base.
A shortened bench also would further diminish Chris Richard's chances of making the team. Surhoff's arrival already jeopardized Richard's place on the roster.