JUPITER, Fla. - Though never accused of being the most savvy of baseball players, Matt Riley could read the signs. He was out of options, and the Orioles were out of ideas.
A trade was the only solution.
With Riley unable to win the fifth starter's job this spring, the Orioles dealt the left-hander to the Texas Rangers yesterday for Triple-A center fielder Ramon Nivar.
In a separate trade, the Orioles sent catcher Keith McDonald to the Rangers for future considerations.
Nivar, 25, was on the Rangers' Opening Day roster last year, but spent most of the summer at Triple-A Oklahoma, where he batted .264 with 10 homers and 52 RBIs in 113 games. He struck out once in every 11.49 plate appearances, the third-lowest ratio in the Pacific Coast League.
Signed by the Rangers as a non-drafted free agent in 1998, Nivar is a career .293 hitter in 642 minor league games. He'll join the Orioles in Oklahoma City for two exhibition games beginning tonight, and is expected to start the season at Triple-A Ottawa, where he could play the outfield and second base.
"He's a young, very athletic kid who can play all over," executive vice president Jim Beattie said. "He runs very well. He's got some tools to work with."
Riley, 25, was the favorite to become the Orioles' No. 5 starter, but he posted an 11.57 ERA in seven innings this spring. In his last appearance, he threw a scoreless inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday, but he allowed a hit and a walk.
"He wasn't going to get an opportunity to pitch here," Beattie said. "We've been working for a while to see what our options were, and we got it nailed down today.
"You stay with people and you try to give them opportunities, but at the same time, you're putting together a club and you want to have the best chance to win. Unfortunately, Matt didn't fit in for us."
A scout from the Rangers attended Tuesday's game and has been following the Orioles.
"I'm not surprised," Riley said. "I'd be lying if I said I don't read around, listen. I've heard things, so I knew something was going on with Texas. The main thing is they're going to give me a shot over there, and that's all I can ask for.
"I thank the Orioles for everything. I've been with them going on my eighth year. I guess they felt like I didn't quite fit into their plans and feel like I had a better opportunity to shine somewhere else. I just have to move on."
Manager Lee Mazzilli considered using Riley out of the bullpen, but wasn't sure he could fill that role. "He has been more suited for starting in the past," Mazzilli said.
The Orioles drafted Riley in the third round in 1997 and signed him a year later as a draft-and-follow. Rated as the top pitching prospect in the organization, Riley made three September starts in 1999 before physical and personal issues derailed him.
Riley was disciplined by the club in 2000 after a spring training arrest for disorderly conduct outside a Fort Lauderdale nightclub. He also stirred up controversy in spring training 2003 for removing a bottle of Xenadrine, an ephedra-based drug, from Steve Bechler's locker and throwing it in the trash after the pitcher collapsed during a workout and later died of heatstroke.
Riley underwent ligament-replacement surgery in his left elbow in 2001, but returned to make two starts in 2003. He began last season as the No. 4 starter and went 3-4 with a 5.63 ERA in 14 games.
"I just wasn't consistent," he said. "The injuries, some problems off the field that hurt me, some discipline problems. I really felt I turned the page in the last year and a half. I've started to do a lot of things better."
He would have been included on the Opening Day roster if he had pitched better this spring.
"I just tried to work on some things and elevate my game in a few areas, and it cost me early," he said. "I really feel like I've been coming on strong late the last week or so, feeling a lot better. But the Orioles want to go in another direction, and I respect that."
Because he was out of options, Riley needed to clear waivers before going to the minors, and the Orioles were certain he would be claimed.
"This is a cut-throat time," he said. "I've either got to be in there for good or it's time to let me go. At least the Orioles were loyal enough to send me someplace where I'd be able to play, and I thank them for that."