Time sharing

Four players, three spots presents challenge for O's

Spring training

February 21, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In his first year as Orioles manager, Sam Perlozzo was tested by a patchwork bullpen, a depleted bench and an inconsistent starting rotation.

About 1 1/2 months before he begins Season 2, his biggest challenge might be his ability to find at-bats for all of his players while keeping the peace in the clubhouse. After a season in which the Orioles needed to convert several infielders into outfielders to field a competitive lineup, increased depth is a welcome problem. But it also can turn out to be a volatile one.

Orioles outfielder Jay Payton, when he was with the Boston Red Sox, yelled at his manager and a bench coach in the dugout because he was angered by his lack of playing time, an act that led to his being dealt to another team. First baseman-designated hitter Kevin Millar also fell out of favor in Boston after griping about his at-bats. And though Jay Gibbons and Aubrey Huff have no history of such behavior, they have never needed to worry whether they are going to be in the lineup. That could change this season.

"You think about it," Perlozzo said. "I am not saying it is a challenge. But you think about it, wonder if we stay healthy, what you are going to do. It's just too early for me to worry about it. I'll get some real worrying in later on."

The Orioles essentially have four players for three spots (first base, left field and designated hitter). Gibbons, who is being worked out this spring at first base and in left field, is still the favorite to be the regular designated hitter, even if he's not thrilled by that idea. Millar is expected to get the majority of starts at first base, and it would be a surprise if Huff weren't the club's Opening Day left fielder, even though he has started fewer than 10 games there in his career.

That leaves Payton as the odd man out, and the 34-year-old is not only the Orioles' best defensive left fielder, but he also has a .288 career average against left-handers, who have dominated the club the past two seasons.

"I've said all along that competition is good," said Orioles vice president Jim Duquette, who called it a terrific problem. "If we are at a point which we are now, where we actually have some competition for at-bats, that's a good thing. It's going to take some attention and creativity by the manager to make sure that everybody is getting the at-bats. For me, guys who deserve the at-bats because they are swinging the bat well will continue to play."

There are other ways Perlozzo can spread the at-bats. Huff, who broke into the majors as a third baseman, can spell Melvin Mora on occasion. Payton can move to center field and replace Corey Patterson against left-handers. Payton or Gibbons can move to right field and give Nick Markakis a day off.

Of course, there is also the possibility - if not probability - of injuries. All the candidates were healthy at the team's first full-squad workout yesterday, but Gibbons is coming off a season in which he played only 90 games because of pain in his knee, and he has spent significant time on the disabled list in two of the past three seasons.

"It's the big leagues. There's competition. That's what it's about. You enjoy that," said Millar, who emerged as the team's everyday first baseman last season after the Javy Lopez experiment faltered and Jeff Conine was traded. "Right now, everybody's got their lineups made Feb. 23 and 27 and March 10, and you guys are going to write articles. A lot's going to happen in five, six weeks. Guys can get hurt, guys can make trades, and it always irons itself out."

When he reported Monday, Millar, who hit .272 with 15 home runs and 64 RBIs last year, became slightly agitated with questions about playing time. In 2005, some reports surfaced that Millar asked to be traded from the Red Sox after the addition of John Olerud cut into his playing time.

"It's about coming in here, getting in shape and putting the best team out there to win baseball games, and that's Sam Perlozzo's job," Millar said.

Duquette said that in the offseason, when the Orioles signed Payton and Huff and brought back Millar, the club spoke to all of their agents and gave them a "rough estimate" of the at-bats that they can expect. Gibbons and Payton said they are not concerned about playing time.

"I dictate whether I'll be in the lineup or not," Gibbons said. "I know if I go out there and do my job, I am going to be in the lineup. It's my own fault if I don't."

Payton remembers being dubbed as the Oakland Athletics' fourth outfielder last spring. He wound up leading the American League West in at-bats.

"I know I am not going to start every game, but for a team to win, you have to have depth," Payton said. "Sometimes, when you have depth, it's hard to keep everybody extremely happy. As the season plays along, the guys that deserve to be out there on a regular basis are going to be out there. I am not too worried about it at all."

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