Some O's breathe

others' status in air

A few players get time to relax, but bullpen, outfield, utility positions are still up for grabs in spring

March 19, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For Orioles with guaranteed jobs, the last two weeks of spring training won't be much different from the first four. They'll just try to stay healthy and get their arms and bats warm through repetition.

But with the team's bullpen, outfield and utility spots unsettled, many players in camp do not have that kind of security.

"It's the time of spring when there are jobs to be won out there," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "We'll be watching the reactions the next two weeks. That's something we'll look at."

The outfield scrum remains the most confusing as spring training winds down. Jay Gibbons is set in right, but Perlozzo hasn't named starters in either center or left.

Corey Patterson, acquired in an offseason trade with the Chicago Cubs, is the front-runner in center. Though he remains an impatient hitter, Patterson has shown the power and speed that made him a top prospect in the first place. He uncorked a throw from right field against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday that had Perlozzo raving the next day.

Orioles coaches would like Patterson to swing for the fences less and take advantage of his speed by putting the ball in play more. But they've generally praised his performance this spring.

His main competition in center, incumbent Luis Matos, may have cost himself by playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He performed well in the Classic, posting a .500 on-base percentage, but Perlozzo estimated that Matos sacrificed 20 at-bats he would have gotten had he stayed in camp.

Matos did have two hits in his return Friday and had one of the Orioles' four hits in yesterday's 7-0 exhibition loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. He said he's not worried about time lost to the Classic.

"I think I have plenty of time to get ready," he said.

Perlozzo's not saying who might start in left. Veterans Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar can both play the position, and Perlozzo has shifted Patterson and utility player Ed Rogers there during camp. Top prospect Nick Markakis has also given the manager something to think about with his outstanding spring.

Markakis has batted .314 with a team-leading eight walks and after a brief slump, he had two hits on Thursday and smacked a double Friday. He has also played all three outfield positions.

Perlozzo seems unsure what to do with the 22-year-old. He said Markakis will probably remain with the team until the end of camp but would not speculate beyond that.

The rookie said he feels confident hitting major league pitching and would like to start the season with the Orioles.

"Yeah, anybody would," he said.

Millar has started games in left field, at first base and at designated hitter. He's been one of the team's best hitters this spring, but his range was limited even in his younger days, so he's not expected to play every day in the outfield.

Neither is Conine.

But Perlozzo seems committed to playing Javy Lopez at first, so if the veterans play the field, they're likely to appear in left.

"It's fair to say that barring some trades, I could see Jeff Conine out there," Perlozzo said.

"I'm sure we're all going to mix in out there," said Millar, who played left yesterday.

David Newhan also figures into the outfield mix but is more likely to be used as a fill-in at many positions. Perlozzo continues to praise his performance.

"He's just been doing the things he needs to do," Perlozzo said after Friday's game, in which Newhan had two hits. "He's been impressive."

The bullpen is another zone of chaos.

Chris Ray and LaTroy Hawkins are set in the top two spots and have given up a run between them this spring. Todd Williams is a sure thing if healthy, but a calf injury has him behind schedule, and he may not be ready for Opening Day.

Veteran Jim Brower has pitched as a spot starter, long reliever and setup man, and the team likes his versatility. Brower started camp with a strong performance but hasn't been as sharp in recent outings. He pitched a scoreless inning yesterday.

Meanwhile, Sendy Rleal has come on as a strong candidate to make the team. Rleal throws hard and has struck out seven in seven innings while allowing only one run.

He didn't have his best stuff in an appearance Friday but didn't allow any runs. "I've seen him better," Perlozzo said. "But he hasn't backed off."

Left-hander Tim Byrdak also appears likely to make the roster. He was effective as the team's lefty specialist last year and has pitched six scoreless innings this spring. He has outperformed fellow lefty Vic Darensbourg.

"Somebody needs to get tough left-handers out late in the ballgame," Perlozzo said. "Right now [Byrdak's] inside to do that."

Former starters Eric DuBose and John Halama are competing for the long-relief spot. Both left-handers have pitched well.

DuBose struggled Thursday against the Cardinals, but Perlozzo said that didn't concern him. He wants the lefty to add a sharper curveball so he can also pitch in short relief but said DuBose is a known quantity.

Halama, meanwhile, has managed a 2.45 ERA in a team-high 11 innings. Two errors put him behind against the Washington Nationals on Friday, but the lanky veteran recovered with two seamless innings.

"He knows what he's doing out there," Perlozzo said after the game. "He knows how to get out of a tough situation." childs.walker@baltsun.com

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