Who's on first? It's not J. Lopez

Struggles at plate, in field prompt Oriole's move to DH

Orioles

March 30, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

Fort Myers, Fla. -- With Javy Lopez's error total mounting and his problems in the field carrying over to the plate, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said yesterday that the displaced catcher will be used as the team's designated hitter for the foreseeable future, not as the Orioles' first baseman.

"We need to take a little pressure off with his defense now and get him straightened out and get his bat going," Perlozzo said before the Orioles' exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins yesterday. "We really need his bat. We're going to let him DH and work on his hitting and continue to let him work on his first base. As we go into the season we'll start using him at the right time. The better he gets [at first base], the more he plays."

Asked if Lopez is no longer the Orioles' Opening Day first baseman, which Perlozzo said was nearly assured earlier this week, the Orioles manager said, "It's not a lock anymore, no."

Lopez, who is attempting the transition to first base after playing catcher for his entire 14-season career, had struggled defensively all spring, making four errors in nine games and also blowing four pickoff attempts with errant throws.

But even more problematic for the Orioles is that Lopez's fixation on learning a position he had played for only two innings in the majors has clearly affected his offense, the main reason the Orioles signed him to a three-year, $22.5 million deal before the 2004 season. He went 0-for-4 yesterday as the designated hitter and is mired in an 0-for-13 slump. His spring batting average has fallen to .125.

Lopez, 35, admitted earlier this week that trying to learn first base has taken time that he normally reserves for hitting. He said the position change is "wearing me out. It's something that has consumed my time and my mind." He also softened his previous stance of not wanting to DH at all, saying that he would be willing to DH once in a while, but he did not want to do it full time. He has said that he doesn't feel into the game when he is the designated hitter.

However, he declined to comment before yesterday's game.

Perlozzo said that he broke the news to Lopez yesterday morning, before the team boarded a bus and headed to their game.

"It had been on my mind simply because I could see what's been going on with him," said Perlozzo, who added that the jeers from the crowd after several of Lopez's errors this spring have been tough to listen to. "It was obviously affecting his offense and his offense started affecting his defense. It was a counterproductive situation to this point. First couple weeks of spring, I didn't foresee that. But he's better than he's playing, trust me.

"He's got himself now where he's in a snowball going in the opposite direction. We want to stop that right now. We want to get these things shored up. He's OK with that. ... He wants to be a two-way player. We need to get one of them going."

Chuck Berry, Lopez's agent who was in Fort Lauderdale yesterday to speak to Orioles vice president Jim Duquette about Lopez's progress defensively, said that his client is focused on improving offensively and defensively and won't be a distraction to the team.

"It is still a worthwhile project," Duquette said. "It's not like he is going to discontinue playing first base. We are going to still work with him there. We've seen progress in some areas, but as we start the season, we wanted to do the right thing by Javy, and by the team."

Lopez, a career .290 hitter, has had 224 career at-bats as a designated hitter, batting .219 during those. When the Orioles signed Ramon Hernandez in December, displacing Lopez from his spot as the club's everyday catcher, Lopez and his agent told the Orioles that he either wanted to be traded or given a contract extension.

He is in the last year of his contract and felt that an extension would give him the security he needed to make the transition to first. The Orioles wanted to see how Lopez progressed at first before offering him an extension. They also gauged interest around the league, but Lopez's price tag - he'll make $8.5 this season - and age resulted in little interest league-wide and the former catcher rescinded his trade demand.

Team officials have lauded Lopez's work ethic this spring, both in Fort Lauderdale and at the World Baseball Classic, where he worked with Puerto Rican manager Jose Oquendo. Lopez has been a constant presence at first base, fielding a ton of ground balls and often asking for more after workouts had ended.

However, Lopez, who has also performed catcher duties this spring in his role as a backup, did not show much progress, struggling in all areas, from throws to second, to fielding routine ground balls or pop-ups to being in the appropriate position as a cut-off man.

Duquette said yesterday that Lopez, who hit .278 with 15 homers and 49 RBIs in an injury-shortened 2005, remains in the team's plans and still could see some time at first, although Perlozzo will have to pick and choose when to get him in. Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar will now get most of the starts, with Chris Gomez also being used there as a late-inning defensive replacement.

"They are guys that have played there at the major league level and can do it at an adequate level," Duquette said. "Javy has put in the time and he'll continue to do that. But it's probably unfair to expect him to play first every day after six weeks of spring training." jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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