Palmeiro to take a cut in play

Orioles: The veteran will start less at first base, but it's based on his numbers - and not those in his contract, the team says.

September 01, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

If it appears the Orioles have slammed the brakes on Rafael Palmeiro's playing time, just to make sure he doesn't trigger the $4.5 million vesting option in his contract for next season, there's an important precedent to remember here.

Last year, when veteran pitcher Pat Hentgen was closing in on a $2 million incentive if he reached 150 innings pitched, the Orioles didn't stand in his way. He had 126 1/3 innings entering September, and they kept pitching him until he passed the 160 mark.

The reason?

Hentgen was their best starting pitcher in the second half, as he went 6-3 with a 3.10 ERA. He was so good, in fact, the Orioles tried desperately to re-sign him for this year and were greatly disappointed when he chose to finish his career with Toronto.

Palmeiro has been a different story.

His performance has been in sharp decline, and the option year on his contract will vest if he plays 140 games on defense. After spending most of the year as the everyday first baseman, Palmeiro still needs to play 22 of the final 32 games on defense in order to secure his place as an Oriole for 2005.

It has become one of the team's most intriguing issues for September, and Palmeiro said he never saw it coming.

"When I prepared in the offseason, I prepared to play 162 games at first base," he said last night in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I prepared myself mentally and physically. I didn't think [the contract issue would surface]. I figured that I'd get some days off and a couple days [as the designated hitter], but I'm always prepared to play 162 at first."

Palmeiro was back at first base last night against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, contributing an RBI double, but he wasn't used on defense in three of the previous four games, as Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli looked to Jose Leon and Jay Gibbons at first.

Club vice president Mike Flanagan said this isn't about Palmeiro's contract, it's about his performance, and a commitment to fielding a lineup that gives the team the best chance to win.

"It's a baseball decision," Flanagan said. "You don't work backward from the contract."

He later added, "The reason you put performance clauses in there are just for that: performance. And we've never been afraid to pay for performance."

Palmeiro, who turns 40 on Sept. 24, has compiled 542 career home runs and 2,891 career hits - numbers that will probably get him into the Hall of Fame. The Orioles re-signed him in January after he left the Texas Rangers as a free agent and crossed their fingers this wouldn't be the year he hit the proverbial wall.

But that's exactly what happened. Consider these numbers entering last night:

After hitting at least 38 home runs in a major league-record nine consecutive seasons, Palmeiro had 14 this year - and just one since the All-Star break.

His .391 slugging percentage and .747 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) ranked last among all major league first basemen.

He had 35 extra-base hits, compared with 61 last season and 77 in 2002.

He had two RBIs in his past 21 games.

He was hitting .184 against left-handers, with four extra-base hits in 136 at-bats. This came after he hit .282 with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs against lefties a year ago.

"In my opinion, I feel like I give us our best chance to win, but it's not my decision to say who plays first base," said Palmeiro, who had two extended meetings with Mazzilli last weekend, when the Orioles appeared to go in a different direction.

They promoted Leon from Triple-A Ottawa and decided to start using him at first base against left-handed pitchers. Palmeiro has not started the past two games against lefties and probably won't start tonight when the team faces Devil Rays lefty Mark Hendrickson.

Leon, who hit .323 with 16 home runs this year at Ottawa, will be out of minor league options next season, so the Orioles have a decision to make about his future.

"He's had some good years in Triple-A, and he's certainly warranted an opportunity," Flanagan said. "We're certainly not giving up on the season, but we need to find out more about Jose Leon, where he's not looking over his shoulder, seeing if we're going to pinch hit for him."

In their final 32 games, the Orioles will see only a handful of left-handed starting pitchers because 14 of those contests are against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, whose starting rotations are filled with right-handers.

But while the Orioles still intend to play Palmeiro at first base against right-handers, as witnessed last night, Mazzilli started Gibbons at first base Sunday, with Palmeiro as his designed hitter.

"Gibbons has played some first base in the past, but he's never played first base for Maz," Flanagan said. "He'd like to see him at first base and make up his own mind."

Gibbons started the season as the everyday right fielder, but Orioles officials say they will probably look to upgrade that position defensively this offseason. If Gibbons can't do the job at first base, they'll look at him primarily as a DH.

If and where Palmeiro will fit into the plans remains to be seen. In January, he said he wanted to finish his career in Baltimore and go into the Hall of Fame as an Oriole, if he was indeed selected.

Yesterday, he shot down any possibility of retirement.

"I haven't thought about that," he said. "This is not my last year. I'm definitely not going out like this. I'm going to refocus and re-energize my body, and I will have the kind of year people are accustomed to and I'm accustomed to. I have no doubt in my mind that will happen."

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

Slumping Palmeiro

Statistics through last night's game

.184 - Batting average vs. left-handers

3 - Homer vs. left-handers

1 - Homer since All-Star break

.194 - Batting average in past 11 games

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