Curbing enthusiasm

Hernandez would love to catch every day, but O's have other plans

February 17, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Spring training was not even a day old when Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan approached catcher Ramon Hernandez on Thursday and asked how many games he wanted to catch this season.

Barely giving the question much thought, Hernandez replied, "150."

"He loves to catch," Flanagan said. "It makes it difficult on everyone. You may think it is time to give him a rest, but he just wants to play. It's a pleasant dilemma for us to have."

Hernandez was the starting catcher in 126 of 162 games last season, tied for fourth most among major league catchers. It was the third most he has caught in one season.

Though Hernandez, 30, had a career year, setting career highs in home runs, RBIs, doubles and games, the Orioles' front office spent the offseason trying to find ways to get him out of the lineup more.

They signed journeyman catcher Paul Bako as a free agent, selected catcher Adam Donachie in the Rule 5 draft and invited J.R. House to spring training. The catching depth, though not what the organization wants it to be, is upgraded from last year, when the Orioles tried four backups for Hernandez, all with little to no success.

But it won't matter unless the organization sells Hernandez on the value of a day off. Each time Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo floated the idea last season, Hernandez emphatically shot it down.

"Look, they pay me good and they pay me to play," said Hernandez, who signed a four-year, $27.5 million deal with the Orioles in December 2005. "I respect that. I am a guy that has a uniform on my chest and I like to play. You never know what will happen if you say to your manager: `I'm tired. I don't want to play.' You might get a single to win the game that day or I might call a good game and we win, 2-0. ... I never want days off. I am ready to play every day."

Hernandez, one of the most respected players in the Orioles' clubhouse, said it is ultimately Perlozzo's decision and he is not going to pout if asked to take a day off. Club vice president Jim Duquette acknowledged that it is often difficult to override the wishes of a star player and tell him that he isn't playing that day.

During his days as a New York Mets executive, Duquette remembered how hard it was to sit catcher Mike Piazza because he wanted to play and the team lost so much production when he wasn't in the lineup.

"There's always a fine line with getting a guy rest when he doesn't want it," Duquette said. "It's a fine line that the manager with the support of the player has to work through. What the line is with Ramon, we are still trying to figure out."

Hernandez was one of the most valuable Orioles last season and made a case that he was also one of the league's best catchers. Among American League catchers, he was tied for first in home runs (23), finished second in RBIs (91) and was third in slugging percentage (.479) and doubles (29). He also threw out an AL-leading 42 would-be base stealers.

Hernandez credits his production to being more mature and focused. But he also felt that being in the lineup every day - he also was the designated hitter for six games - allowed him to get into and maintain a rhythm.

"I think if they give me more days off, I might not have the numbers," Hernandez said. "When you play more, you have a chance to put good numbers up."

After starting his career with the Oakland Athletics and then moving to the San Diego Padres, Hernandez said he was slightly affected by the East Coast humidity last summer. In July, he hit just .188 and went 41 straight games without a home run.

"We think there were times that he was worn out," Duquette said.

The problems were that Hernandez didn't want a day off - "When you are having that good of a year, you don't want a day off," Flanagan said -and Perlozzo's options behind him were slim.

The Orioles preferred to have a defense-oriented backup, and Javy Lopez was a defensive liability. They also tried Raul Chavez, Danny Ardoin and Chris Widger, and none of them proved to be the answer.

Duquette described looking for a "more credible and established backup" as one of the offseason priorities. The Orioles agreed to a one-year deal with Bako, who has played for eight teams and was once Greg Maddux's personal catcher. Bako has a career average of .236, but he is known as a solid catch-and-throw guy. His familiarity with the way Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone wants a game called from his two seasons in Atlanta also makes him a favorite to make the club.

"Hopefully, it will be a little bit easier this year if you have a veteran guy to go in there and pick up Ramon," Perlozzo said. "Ramon's a tough kid. He likes to catch. But we're going to do our best to keep him fresh."

Hernandez, who played winter ball this offseason in his native Venezuela, wants no special treatment. He started yesterday working on the back fields at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, catching different pitchers. He then jogged to the main field with equipment in hand to catch some more. After taking some soft toss in the indoor batting cages, Hernandez got in some batting practice. There was one more drill before he finally got rid of his catching gear for the afternoon.

But about 1 1/2 hours after the team workout ended and many of the players had long left Fort Lauderdale Stadium, there was Hernandez, emerging from the weight room. His day was finally over.

"I am going to work hard and lift a lot of weights, so when the season starts, I'll be strong again," he said. "I am just going to keep as strong as I can all the way through the end of the season. I won't need much time off."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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