Richard may make trek to Rockies if Cust deal finalized

Colorado outfielder could add to depth as O's try to rebuild farm system


March 11, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When the Orioles call teams to talk trade these days, it's not always intended to provide immediate help at the major-league level.

Though still searching for ways to add a run producer to a team that treated home plate like a poison ivy patch last season, the Orioles also want to strengthen their affiliates and lose the "F" grade assigned to their farm system by Baseball America. The Orioles are willing to move a veteran player in exchange for a minor-leaguer, and vice president Mike Flanagan confirmed yesterday that they're close to finalizing a trade with the Colorado Rockies.

Flanagan didn't reveal any names, but the Orioles reportedly have been pursuing outfielder Jack Cust, 24, who spent most of last season at Triple-A, and are trying to move outfielder Chris Richard in exchange. Richard no longer fits with the Orioles after they signed B.J. Surhoff to a minor- league contract. They also are gambling David Segui will stay healthy and get a full season's worth of at-bats at first base and as the designated hitter.

"You have to look at what type of prospect you're getting in return for what type of veteran you're moving, and how much you have to pay," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "But it's very important to have your organization backed up with prospects."

The Orioles also can do this by insisting that a club include a young player with a high upside in any package that also would bring them a pricey veteran, though the Cust-Richard deal probably would be straight up.

"That's certainly one of the avenues that you would explore," Flanagan said, "especially if it's where we'd take back salary. One of the ways we'd like to look at it is to get a front-line prospect with that."

"Some deals can be for cash, too," Beattie said. "It's all part of trying to build your organization."

Cust hit .265 with 23 homers in 359 at-bats last season for Colorado Springs, and batted .179 with one homer in 35 games with the Rockies. A former first-round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he is 5-for-14 with two RBIs this spring.

One scouting service notes Cust is "a well-known minor-league power hitter, but he doesn't show the aggressiveness and quickness that translates into big-league success." The service also said Cust "takes too many pitches and hasn't shown the ability to pull the ball," and rated his defense as "suspect," pointing out his poor routes to the ball, lack of mobility and struggles to hit the cutoff man.

Cust would be considered a better defensive fit at Camden Yards than spacious Coors Field, and the Orioles are intrigued by his power and high on-base percentages each season.

The Orioles would send Cust to their new Triple-A affiliate in Ottawa, where he'd probably bat fourth while playing first base and the outfield and serving as the designated hitter. The Lynx's outfield should be crowded, with Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos and Darnell McDonald expected to be assigned there.

Richard is 4-for-17 this spring. He's still recovering from shoulder surgery, which continues to limit his throwing and keeps him at first base rather than the outfield.

"It's getting better," he said before yesterday's game against the Cincinnati Reds in Sarasota, Fla. "As long as it's getting better, that's fine."

Asked about the trade rumor, Richard said, "This is stuff I'm not even thinking about."

Flanagan estimated he's been in contact with "90 percent of the teams on a weekly basis," including the San Diego Padres, who need a replacement for injured outfielder Phil Nevin. The Padres have rookie Xavier Nady and veterans Brady Anderson and Roberto Kelly as candidates to replace Nevin, who's scheduled today for reconstructive surgery on his dislocated left shoulder.

The Padres also must find a closer after losing Trevor Hoffman to a shoulder injury. He's not expected back before the All-Star break.

"Teams come down to [spring training] and things change," Flanagan said. "You look at San Diego's situation. They come to camp and they lose their closer and cleanup hitter, so things that were said at the winter meetings don't apply. You go back there and touch base and see what's going on there. We're aware of all the needs of the teams."

The Orioles will conduct a staff meeting next week to review their roster and other teams'. Unlike past years, they have more flexibility, because none of the players in camp is out of minor-league options.

Without any changes made, the Orioles' Opening Day lineup most likely would include Segui hitting third, Jeff Conine fourth, Jay Gibbons fifth and Tony Batista sixth. Beattie and Flanagan were unable to reach agreements with free agents Ivan Rodriguez, Cliff Floyd, Hideki Matsui and Jose Cruz Jr., and the search continues for a proven power source.

"We planted the seed a long time ago," Flanagan said. "We were very upfront with all the clubs in what we're looking for. We're looking for bats. If we get a chance to upgrade, we're going to try to do it. And we feel that as we get closer to Opening Day, and maybe the screws get a little tighter, things will start to happen."

NOTE: Broward County medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper said yesterday that he will hold a news conference Thursday to disclose the findings of the toxicology report on Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who died of heatstroke on Feb. 17.

Sun staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this article.

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