O's roster is based on sense, not dollars

Regardless of contracts, team will choose `best 25'

February 27, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - David Segui will make $7 million this season whether he steps on the field for the Orioles or not.

Omar Daal will make $4.5 million, and Marty Cordova will earn $3.5 million.

But all of them are coming back from injuries this spring, and none is guaranteed a spot on the team's Opening Night roster.

The same goes for Jack Cust, who is out of minor league options and would have to clear waivers before getting sent to Triple-A Ottawa. And the same goes for B.J. Surhoff, a fan favorite who was signed to a minor league contract.

"We are going to take the best 25 players north," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said yesterday. "I think you take all of that stuff [salary, minor league options and popularity], and it really doesn't measure into the decision-making process when it comes to who's the best 25."

The Orioles have more than a month to set their roster, but some positional battles are taking shape, and Flanagan's comments provided key clues about the team's thinking a few days into spring training.

Apparently, the Orioles aren't afraid to eat millions in salary if they don't feel the players making that money can help them win, beginning April 4 against the Boston Red Sox.

With the exception of second base, where Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts are battling for the starting spot and waiting to find out who gets traded, the Orioles have a pretty good idea who will start at each position.

Javy Lopez will catch, Rafael Palmeiro will play first base, Melvin Mora third base, Miguel Tejada shortstop, Larry Bigbie left field, Luis Matos center field and Jay Gibbons right field.

But the designated hitter spot is up for grabs, with Surhoff, Cust, Segui and Cordova in the mix. In each case, the Orioles are going to have some tough decisions to make:

Surhoff, 39, signed a minor league contract, which means he would need to be added to the 40-man roster if he makes the team. After hitting .295 last season in 93 games, Surhoff isn't too worried. He called the minor league contract "a formality" after getting to camp this week.

Cust, 25, hopes his status without minor league options helps his chances. He hit .260 with four home runs and a .357 on-base percentage in 27 games last year, and he could benefit with Lee Mazzilli as the manager.

Mazzilli said every player has a clean slate, and Cust could use it. He is probably best remembered for falling face-first in front of home plate when he represented the tying run against the New York Yankees on Aug. 16 at Camden Yards.

"Obviously I didn't get much playing time last year, so a new look [at manager] is probably a good thing," Cust said. "As long as I make the most of my opportunity, and I think I will."

Cust has been an on-base machine throughout his minor league career, posting a .436 on-base percentage. That statistic is so precious to general managers around the game such as the Oakland Athletics' Billy Beane, Los Angeles Dodgers' Paul DePodesta, Toronto Blue Jays' J.P. Ricciardi and Boston Red Sox's Theo Epstein that Cust probably wouldn't last a second on the waiver wire.

So if the Orioles get into a situation in which they're not going to keep him on the roster, look for Cust to get traded this spring.

"I'd have to say he has a bright future," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "Whether his future starts this year or not, we have to see."

Cordova, 34, played in nine games last season, and the prospects for a healthy return this spring aren't good. He underwent reconstructive elbow surgery on Aug. 27, and team officials say his return has also been slowed because of a back injury.

Yesterday, as Cordova shagged balls in the outfield during practice, his lack of arm strength was obvious.

All signs point toward Cordova's spending a chunk of the season on the disabled list.

Segui could be joining him on the DL - again. He had a second surgery to repair tendon damage in his left wrist Sept. 8, and he isn't as far along in his recovery as he was from the first surgery a year ago.

Segui, 37, has been lining balls all over the field from both sides of the plate during batting practice, but there's no telling how he'll do against live pitching in exhibition games.

The Orioles have an insurance policy on Segui's contract that would let them recoup 70 percent of his salary ($4.9 million) if he spends an entire season on the DL.

"That's a physician's [decision]," Flanagan said. "That's not something that we manipulate. It can sound like, `Let's put him on the DL and forget about him and let the insurance pay for him.' That's not quite the way it works. The perception may be that, but it's not."

Segui still plans to retire at season's end, but he's not ready to pack it in yet.

"If I can't perform, I don't expect to make the team," Segui said. "But if my hand's healthy, it gives them options. Those are the decisions they have to make."

The Orioles will also have a decision to make on Daal. He missed 2 1/2 months last season with tendinitis in his left shoulder, but he said he feels better this spring.

He appears to rank sixth on the depth chart for starting pitchers, behind Sidney Ponson, Eric DuBose, Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth and Matt Riley.

If Daal regains the velocity he lost a year ago and proves he can be an effective major league starter again, it will let the Orioles be more patient with Riley, who has only pitched 21 innings in the big leagues. If not, Daal may not be part of the group that heads north on April 4.

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