Emerging Roberts second to none with Orioles

Flourishing in absence of Hairston for 2 years, he's proved he belongs


May 11, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - The scouts who followed Brian Roberts at the University of South Carolina in 1999 saw one of the nation's best hitters and base stealers, a college coach's son with a well-rounded game and definite big league potential.

Of course, they also noted Roberts' small size - he's listed generously in the Baseball Register at 5 feet 9 - and most teams passed on him in the June amateur draft before the Orioles grabbed him with the 50th overall pick.

Even as Roberts climbed through the minors, other teams remained skeptical. It wasn't until last season, when Roberts got a chance to replace Jerry Hairston on a full-time basis as the Orioles' second baseman, that the doubts began to fade.

Now, five weeks into a new season, with Roberts ranked statistically among the game's best leadoff men, the baseball community sounds convinced.

"He's an overachiever," said Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "Our reports never had him as a blue-chip guy, but now he's an everyday player, no doubt about it."

Roberts has played so well with Hairston injured, it has forced the Orioles to rethink their whole second base conundrum.

Hairston, who broke his right ring finger on March 4, will return from the disabled list tonight, when the team begins a three-game series against the Chicago White Sox, but in deference to Roberts, Hairston will bat ninth and serve as the designated hitter.

For now, the team has no intention of yanking Roberts from his second base and leadoff duties - not with an American League-leading 15 stolen bases (in 17 attempts), not with a batting average (.315) and on-base percentage (.377) that rank with the top leadoff men in baseball.

Roberts also has played 28 games without making an error.

Hairston was enjoying a breakout season himself at this time last year before he broke a bone in his right foot on May 20. But that freak injury, and the latest one - which occurred in the first inning of the first exhibition game - have dropped his stock considerably.

Last year, Roberts came up from Triple-A Ottawa and showed he could be every bit as good as Hairston. This year, Roberts looks like he could be even better.

Even Hairston said he doesn't want to "rock the boat."

"I don't think he will," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said. "Brian's played extremely well. He's as loose as I've ever seen him. He's comfortable. I think it'll work."

Hairston dropped strong hints again Sunday that he thought a trade is imminent - the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are two teams that would love to upgrade at second base - but Orioles officials seem more inclined to keep Hairston and Roberts for the foreseeable future.

As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the Orioles might try to move one of them, and most baseball officials predict it will be Hairston.

On paper, they are very similar players. Roberts is 26. Hairston turns 28 on May 29.

But Hairston, who took over as the team's everyday second baseman late in the 2000 season, has accrued nearly two more years of major league service time, and he's making $1.65 million this year compared with $345,000 for Roberts.

Because of Hairston's higher salary - which only figures to rise again next year through arbitration - and his recent spate of injuries, baseball officials say Roberts' trade value is actually greater.

In the meantime, the Orioles like to think they have a good problem on their hands.

"I'm looking for good things when [Hairston] gets back," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Knowing who he is and what he's done, he's going to make us a better team, no question about it, and that's all that counts for me."

This isn't the first time the Orioles have had two capable second basemen vying for the same job. In the early 1960s, it was Jerry Adair vs. Marv Breeding. In the spring of 1966 - the Orioles' first world championship season - it was Adair vs. Davey Johnson.

In 1972 - the year before the American League adopted the DH - a young infielder named Bobby Grich couldn't crack the Orioles' starting lineup because they had Johnson at second, Mark Belanger at shortstop and Brooks Robinson at third.

Then, after Grich left as a free agent in 1976, Rich Dauer and Billy Smith formed an effective platoon at second base until Dauer assumed the full-time responsibilities.

In more recent times, other teams have used two second basemen in the same lineup, with one as the DH. The Yankees, for example, used one-time second baseman Chuck Knoblauch as a leadoff hitter/DH for about 20 games in 2000 and 2001.

This season, two NL teams have the same situation as the Orioles, with two capable second baseman, but neither has the luxury of the DH. The Milwaukee Brewers (Junior Spivey and Keith Ginter) and Pittsburgh Pirates (Jose Castillo and Bobby Hill) have to be creative to get all of those players their at-bats.

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