J. Lopez hoping to catch a break

Behind plate for 132 games last season, Oriole looking for breather now and then

February 27, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - He stood beside Rafael Palmeiro on the right side of the infield, the mitt on Javy Lopez's left hand looking so different from the model he wears when crouching behind home plate.

Lopez scooped up a grounder and waited for the next ball to come, sometimes directly at his feet, other times toward the line. And so an experiment had begun. An All-Star catcher with the Atlanta Braves, Lopez was playing the part of backup first baseman in the Orioles' spring training camp.

The position is mostly new to Lopez, who moved to first on occasion during the winter league season. But the Orioles are looking for ways to keep him fresher, his body often wracked with pain last year from a workload that grew heavy as the temperature soared.

Lopez caught 132 games last year, 125 as a starter. He played in 83 of 85 in the first half, his only breaks coming on consecutive days with a strained oblique muscle. He missed 10 games after the break, three because of back spasms and one because of a stiff neck.

Privately, some members of the organization wondered whether Lopez's ailments - especially in the neck - were more in his head, drastic measures to get a breather. Lopez, in his first season with the Orioles, said he would have played if physically able, but he also hoped for a lighter schedule in 2005.

"It was more in the summertime when it was really hot," he said. "Your whole body needs rest because of the heat. And playing a day game after a night game was hard."

Manager Lee Mazzilli hasn't set a catching limit for Lopez this season, but it's likely that his breaks behind the plate will put him in the designated hitter's role, or on the bench, more often than first base. With Jay Gibbons moving to first from right field, and Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff more experienced at the position, the need to shift Lopez isn't quite as pronounced - though he would provide a right-handed bat.

"I don't know how many games Javy's going to catch," Mazzilli said. "And I don't know how much time he's going to get at first base because of what we have over there with Raffy, Gibby and B.J. We'll have to see how it plays out.

"It also depends on how much we DH him. With our lineup now, we have a little more of a luxury to sit him at times. You figure he [started] about 120 games last year. You don't know, when you get a year older, how your legs are sometimes. But it'll be maybe in that ballpark."

The Orioles' shopping list this winter included a backup catcher, but Geronimo Gil, the primary starter in 2003, is the favorite almost by default.

He didn't rejoin the team last year until rosters expanded in September. Last spring, Gil threw a tantrum in the clubhouse and attempted to talk his way onto the disabled list when the Orioles reassigned him to the minor league camp and kept Keith Osik as the reserve behind Lopez. Osik didn't pan out, and replacements Robert Machado and Ken Huckaby weren't much better. None of them remain in the organization.

Meanwhile, Gil batted .281 in 12 games with the Orioles after his recall, hitting safely in seven of eight starts, and threw out three of six runners attempting to steal. He was the only backup among the four with a batting average higher than .170.

"I'm ready for anything," said Gil. "I just want to play. I'm working hard every day to make the team."

Being sent down proved a blessing for Gil, who later hit .327 with seven homers in the Mexican Winter League, though he didn't see it that way when smashing a trash can with his bat upon receiving the news.

"The first day was difficult because everybody wants to play, but one week later I was playing every day," he said. "I felt better because they gave me the opportunity to play. I had a good season. And it was good for me because when you play every day, you're asked to do something different."

Gil's primary competition comes from veteran Sal Fasano, 33, who signed a minor league contract. He hasn't played in the majors since appearing in two games with the Anaheim Angels in 2002. Fasano spent last summer with Triple-A Columbus in the New York Yankees' system.

"These guys contacted me in early December and that's the earliest I've signed since probably 2000," he said. "It was a really nice opportunity to get a job. The negotiations lasted about two minutes. Here's their offer. OK, let's go. We didn't fight too much about that.

"I understand Javy is the man. The backup catcher is a role where you really need to understand what your job is. For a guy in his 20s, it's harder. When a guy is starting to get in his 30s, it becomes a little easier to do. You just hope they're looking for experience, people who can handle pitchers and hit a few balls here and there."

Eli Whiteside, the top catching prospect in the organization, probably will begin the season at Triple-A Ottawa or Double-A Bowie because the club wants him to play every day. Brandon Marsters and Keith McDonald, who signed minor league deals, also are in camp.

"They all seem to be very good throwers," said first base coach Rick Dempsey, who works with the catchers. "We've got a nice little competition for that spot, and it's going to be fun to watch."

It'll be pure joy for Lopez if he can reduce the wear and tear on his body this summer.

"Being off one day a week would be perfect, just to keep me fresh," he said. "Or [skip] one guy out of the rotation and I could DH or play first base. Whatever they want me to do."

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