Help may be on way for J. Lopez

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Club said to be thinking of adding catcher in '05 to share load with him

September 20, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - As the Orioles kick around ideas about how to improve the club this offseason, club insiders say they're considering adding another catcher who could split the load with Javy Lopez next season.

In that scenario, Lopez would play about 80 games at catcher and perhaps 40 or 50 at first base, saving wear and tear on his body while keeping his bat in the lineup.

"I wouldn't mind that at all," Lopez said yesterday.

When Lopez, 33, signed his three-year, $22.5 million contract in December, there was talk the Orioles may look to play him some at first base. But those plans were shelved in January, when they signed Rafael Palmeiro, who was looking to return to an everyday first base role.

With a lack of quality backup catching options, Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli has ridden Lopez hard, starting him at catcher in 115 of the team's 147 games. Yesterday was the first time Lopez was not the team's starting catcher since Sept. 3.

When he was playing for the Atlanta Braves, Lopez would usually get a day off on the games Greg Maddux pitched, so his last three years there, Lopez never started more than 115 games at catcher.

Last year, Lopez had one of the greatest offensive seasons for a catcher in baseball history, batting .328 with 43 home runs and 109 RBIs.

The Orioles figured he would thrive in the American League, with the designated hitter. But Lopez is hitting .205, with 15 hits in 73 at-bats as the DH this season.

"After experiencing DH-ing, I think first base would be fine," Lopez said. "In Atlanta, I would always take ground balls at first base [during batting practice]. I loved it. That's the busiest position [in the infield]. I don't like DH-ing. I don't feel a part of the game."

Lopez has never played first base in the big leagues, but he used to play there in winter ball in Puerto Rico. He said he plans to work on the position this winter.

After giving himself several weeks to recuperate, Lopez plans to work out at San Diego State University, where Tony Gwynn is the head coach. Gwynn's son, Anthony, will be working out there, along with Oakland Athletics center fielder Mark Kotsay.

Asked yesterday about potentially using Lopez at first base next year, Mazzilli said, "You're getting ahead of yourself. We don't know what we're going to do in the offseason."

But the Orioles will likely look at signing a serviceable catching complement to Lopez, with some of the free-agent possibilities including Seattle's Dan Wilson, Minnesota's Henry Blanco and Toronto's Gregg Zaun.

Lopez is hitting .313 with 19 home runs and 74 RBIs. His last home run came Aug. 20. But Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said Lopez has hit about 10 balls at Camden Yards that looked like home runs off the bat but simply didn't carry over the fence.

"I know his power numbers don't look like they did last year, but he's such a big part of our lineup," Crowley said. "I'm so pleased we have Javy on the team."

Palmeiro at the limit

Palmeiro tweaked his right hamstring running the bases on Saturday and wasn't in the lineup yesterday against Twins left-hander Johan Santana. Palmeiro must play defense in all 15 of the Orioles' final games to trigger his $4.5 million option for next year, and he's resigned to the fact that probably won't happen.

"I'm just trying to finish the season strong," he said.

He came up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning against Twins closer Joe Nathan and hit an RBI single off the right-field wall. In September, Palmeiro is batting .352 with six home runs and 17 RBIs.

Tejada extends streak

Miguel Tejada played in his 741st consecutive game, extending the longest active streak in the majors and moving him past Dale Murphy for the 12th longest streak of all time.

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