At catcher, Orioles still have plenty in reserve

Gil and five others vying for backup job to J. Lopez

March 13, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Keith Osik was about an hour away from signing a minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals in January when the Orioles swooped in with a similar deal that he found more appealing.

"It kind of fell into place real quick," he said.

Osik saw an opportunity with the Orioles as a backup to Javy Lopez, the $22.5 million catcher who'll make most of the starts this season. Osik never will be able to carry a club, but he can caddy for an All-Star.

Bill Haselman joined the organization a month earlier, just before Lopez was handed a No. 18 jersey at the B&O warehouse. Like Osik, he's scrambling for a major league job. No role is too small, even a supporting one.

Though it doesn't rate as the most intriguing competition in camp, a second catcher must be chosen from a group that also includes Robert Machado, Raul Casanova and Geronimo Gil, last year's Opening Day starter whose stock fell faster than Martha Stewart's.

Only Gil is on the 40-man roster, which doesn't guarantee him a job. Manager Lee Mazzilli indicated this week that everyone is on equal footing. He wants to keep two catchers, despite plans to use Lopez as the designated hitter on occasion, and there are no favorites.

"Everything's open as a backup right now," Mazzilli said. "It depends on which way you want to go, what we're looking for, how we want to do it. Do we just want defense or a combination of things? Can he catch and DH as well? That's something we're still deciding on because we don't know the full makeup of the team."

Early bragging rights belong to Gil, if he was willing to speak. One of the quietest players in any clubhouse, he went 2-for-4 yesterday against the Montreal Expos and is 4-for-8 this spring. Osik replaced him and was hitless in his only at-bat, leaving him 0-for-6. Haselman is 2-for-4, Mendez 1-for-7, Casanova 1-for-3 and Machado 0-for-1.

Osik, 35, spent seven years with the Pittsburgh Pirates before signing with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003. He's a career .235 hitter, and has never accumulated more than four homers, 22 RBIs or 167 at-bats in a season.

It's difficult for any of the catchers to rise above the pack - none of them are exceptional in one area, though Casanova is a switch-hitter, Gil has the strongest arm, Haselman the most experience - but Osik does offer more versatility. He's made cameo appearances at first, second and third base and in the outfield, and even pitched twice for the Pirates in emergency situations.

"I thought it would be good to play here," he said. "Kansas City and Anaheim had some interest, too, and I was excited to go to one of these teams because they had a chance to win. Being in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, it's not the same feeling."

Compared to the Pirates and Brewers, the Orioles must seem like perennial contenders. Funny how Lopez, Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro can change someone's perception of an organization.

"What they did this offseason, adding three bats like that was incredible," Osik said. "Plus, I see some good young arms in this camp."

Osik's locker is next to Haselman's, and they chat every morning before heading to the field. Only Carlos Mendez - who's listed as a catcher but has no major league experience at the position - separates them from Casanova and Machado. Lopez and Gil complete the row.

"We're all old enough and have enough time in baseball that we know they can't take all of us," Osik said. "It's just a matter of who they like."

Talk to first base coach Rick Dempsey, who works with the catchers, and it's apparent that he likes them all, though most insiders view Casanova as Triple-A insurance and Mendez as a liability behind the plate.

"This is going to be one of the closest races we have all year long," Dempsey said. "Everybody has good qualities. We've got some tough decision to make here. The guy who gets sent down isn't necessarily there because he's not better than the other guy. It's somebody we want playing every day in case Javy Lopez gets hurt."

The Detroit Tigers released Haselman, 37, in spring training last year - one sure sign that your career is fading - and he received only three at-bats with the Boston Red Sox in September. He plans to retire if he doesn't make the team, and wants to be remembered in Baltimore for more than instigating the biggest brawl in Camden Yards history when he charged Mike Mussina during a 1993 game.

A scout from another organization who watched Haselman at Triple-A Pawtucket said he has "nothing left," but the veteran went 2-for-3 in his first start this spring.

"I've got experience," he said. "I've been in the American League for 10-plus years. I know all the hitters. And I know how to communicate and work with pitchers. I think that's my strength."

The Orioles took Machado off the 40-man roster last year. He declined an assignment to Ottawa and became a free agent before re-signing in late January.

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