O's take big swing, get Cust for Richard

Ex-Rockies outfielder out to widen all-power image

March 12, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles made their first trade in more than 11 months yesterday, sending outfielder Chris Richard and his injured left shoulder to the Colorado Rockies for a prospect hoping to prove he's more than a power hitter.

Jack Cust doesn't hide it. That will be his mission with the Orioles.

"A lot of people have said I can't play the outfield, mostly people who haven't seen me play," Cust said. "I'm looking forward to proving them wrong."

Cust, 24, was a first-round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997. Since then, he has been an all-star at every stop in his minor-league career, but he has yet to shake the labels: all power, no defense.

The Orioles had nobody in their minor-league system who hit more than 18 home runs last season. After weeks of negotiating with the Rockies, they completed the deal for Cust by sending Richard and $175,000 in cash - with the money addressing the difference in salaries.

Cust, whose minor-league home run totals over the past four years are 32, 20, 27 and 23, is likely headed to Triple-A Ottawa, but he'll spend the first couple weeks in the Orioles' big-league camp.

"I know [the Orioles] were looking for someone with power," said Cust, who took a flight out of Tucson, Ariz., yesterday with plans of being at Orioles camp this morning. "Hopefully, I can show them I can do some other things."

The Orioles hadn't completed a trade since April 3, when Syd Thrift sent left-handed reliever John Bale to the New York Mets for Gary Matthews.

Four months after replacing Thrift, Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie pulled their first deal without pretending this was any sort of blockbuster for Carlos Beltran or Ken Griffey.

"It gave us an opportunity to get a bat, and a young bat, and so we're excited about it," said Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations. "[Cust] has a nice offensive pedigree. We'll bring him in and see what he can do, but there are no expectations."

Cust comes from a baseball family. His brother, Kevin, plays in the Atlanta Braves' organization. And their father, who played baseball at Seton Hall, runs an indoor batting facility in Flemington, N.J.

"For me, it's a great opportunity," Cust said. "Baltimore is 2 1/2 hours from my house. It's an organization with a lot of history, and it's fun to be a part of that."

Flanagan called the trade "a good fit" for both teams.

The Rockies plan to use Richard, 28, as their fifth outfielder, mostly because he gives them a left-handed bat off the bench. Richard has had two surgeries on his left rotator cuff, with the last coming Nov. 5, 2001, and the Orioles have used him mostly at first base this spring.

"I still have a little ways to go, so I'm hoping the Rockies are expecting me to be less than 100 percent as far as throwing from the outfield," Richard said. "We'll have to see what their expectations are. I'm going to show them what I can do, and hopefully they'll be patient with me."

This move all but guarantees B.J. Surhoff will make the Orioles' Opening Day roster. The club signed Surhoff to a minor-league deal shortly before spring training, realizing that made Richard expendable.

Richard was considered one of the top prospects the Orioles received in their 2000 salary purge, when Thrift acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Mike Timlin deal. But a second shoulder injury late in the 2001 season derailed Richard's progress.

The Rockies aren't all that concerned with Richard's throwing ability. They like that he can run and cover some ground at Coors Field, feeling that was one of Cust's shortcomings.

The Rockies got Cust from the Diamondbacks before last season in a trade for left-handed reliever Mike Myers. Cust had 23 home runs and a .407 on-base percentage at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but he struggled when the Rockies brought him to the big leagues, striking out 32 times in 65 at-bats.

With Todd Helton at first base and an outfield already consisting of Jay Payton, Preston Wilson and Larry Walker, the Rockies offered limited prospects for Cust to get playing time.

"If he were to make this club and be a fifth outfielder, I don't know what we would get from him at that point," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "They're looking on catching a spark with a big-bang guy, and he has that potential."

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