2 O's players, one 25th spot

Relaford, Rogers battle to fill void if Roberts can't

March 17, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

JUPITER, Fla. -- They might be fighting over a mere sliver of playing time.

But the whiff of a chance is better than no chance at all when you're trying to hang on to a major league career.

Desi Relaford and Ed Rogers are battling for a utility infield spot that probably won't exist if Brian Roberts is healthy. Such showdowns aren't exactly the talk of the spring among Orioles fans.

But the reality is that every team wants to maximize value in all 25 roster spots. And in many big league camps, guys like Relaford and Rogers are toiling to be that last valued piece.

The two have traveled very different roads.

Relaford was drafted in 1991. He has played 10 seasons for six major league teams. His hitting has never scared anyone, but he slapped the ball well enough to bat .302 in 120 games for the New York Mets in 2001. He plays every outfield spot and every infield spot. At 32, he epitomizes the veteran utility man, looking for one more job.

"This is my 11th year, and I have to show I can play all over again," he said. "That's the way this game is. That's the way it's always been for me."

Rogers, 27, was once considered the Orioles' top prospect, a flashy fielder who had held his own with the bat as a younger player. But he fell off the radar as he struggled to hit in Double-A and the Orioles learned he was three years older than his listed age.

However, Rogers has worked with coach Tom Trebelhorn to add outfield play to his range of skills. He made a sensational play at shortstop Tuesday and has hit sharply in recent games. Rogers said he has long dreamed of winning a job with the club that signed him 8 1/2 years ago out of the Dominican Republic.

"That's my goal, that's my dream and this is my team," he said.

If manager Sam Perlozzo knows who will fill the utility role should Roberts start on the disabled list, he's not saying. "There's a job out there to be had," Perlozzo said. "I'm not going to limit it to anybody."

Other possible contenders include minor league infielder Brandon Fahey and veterans Howie Clark and Luis Lopez.

Relaford's apex came in 2001 with the Mets, but he also stole 20 bases as a regular for the Kansas City Royals in 2003. So he has had his moments offensively. And he can play any spot in the outfield or infield.

But he hit only .224 with one home run in 210 at-bats last year for the hitter-friendly Colorado Rockies. "I got dropped by the worst team in the game, so I guess that doesn't look good on my resume," he said.

Relaford has diverse interests, running an independent hip-hop label with five artists called Six-Hole Records.

Not that he's ready to give up his original profession.

He said many people don't know he's still playing. But he's willing to go from city to city in search of work. "That's why I'm here," he said. "I'm a big league player flat out. I'm not a minor league player."

He's not sure where he stands with the Orioles, but Perlozzo said he likes veterans in his utility roles.

"All things being equal, you'd like to have a veteran out there in that spot," Perlozzo said. "Most of the time, they're coming into the ballgame in the eighth or the ninth, pressure situations. ... But I'm also not afraid to put a guy out there like Eddie Rogers."

Perlozzo added that he's been impressed at Rogers' initiative in learning the outfield.

"I feel so comfortable playing in the outfield," Rogers said. "I like it. I think I can play everywhere."

In addition to Trebelhorn's help, Rogers said he received advice from Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora during winter ball. "Every day, we would just talk about baseball and how to get better," he said.

Five years ago, the club hoped Rogers would be its next institution at shortstop. The Orioles thought he was a 19-year-old with a great glove and developing power when he reached Double-A Bowie in 2000.

But he couldn't handle the pitching at that level. Team officials then learned his true age, and he dropped off prospect lists and the team's 40-man roster. He has never been a starter above Double-A.

"You know I'm not the first one that's happened to," Rogers said. "I just have to keep my head up."

Rogers hasn't been the most selective hitter. He has struck out 458 times and walked 179 in 733 minor league games. But he said he's working on that. "I try to hit the ball up the middle, try to hit good pitches," he said.

More importantly, his defensive versatility has Perlozzo and the coaches paying attention again.

Mora walked by just as Rogers was answering a question about what he'd do if he got sent back to the minors.

"He won't," Mora said emphatically.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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