Role as O's full-time DH isn't a hit with Gibbons

March 25, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- He has come in most mornings and quietly trudged to his locker, where he spends the majority of time before games or workouts going through his equipment or relaxing on his chair.

While his clubhouse neighbors like Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff often joke loudly with teammates on each side of him, Jay Gibbons rarely gets involved, aside from delivering a quick smirk or a barely-audible laugh.

Gibbons is one of the longest-tenured Orioles and one of the most well-liked among his teammates, but for much of spring training, he has worn the look of an unsettled player.

When he reported to spring training last year, he had a new contract, a new bride and assurances that he was the Orioles' everyday right fielder. When the Orioles leave here Wednesday and head north to get ready for Opening Day, Gibbons will be preparing to fulfill a role that he'd prefer not to be in and facing an uncertain future with an organization that he has been a part of since 2001.

"I am still married," he quipped. "Things are going well there."

Clearly, Gibbons' sense of humor is intact. He also remains approachable and pleasant, though his outgoing and self-deprecating personality, which has made him a favorite with the media in Baltimore, has been mostly absent from Florida.

The 30-year-old, who has never been shy of speaking his mind, says he is content being an Oriole and has gotten over his suspended experiment at first base, which lasted just two spring games. He also says that he is not concerned about his .189 spring batting average.

"There is no difference between this year and last year," said Gibbons, who hit .277 last year with 13 homers and 46 RBIs but was limited to 90 games. "I am healthy again. I actually feel better this year than last year in spring training. I still have security. ... I am planning on having that big year that I was planning on having last year."

Gibbons got off to a solid start last year, but his season was undone the minute he collided with the outfield wall at Angel Stadium of Anaheim trying to field Vladimir Guerrero's line drive May 26. The collision resulted in knee, hip and groin injuries and two trips to the disabled list. It also eventually resulted in Gibbons losing his starting outfield spot to rookie Nick Markakis, who showed that his best position was right field.

"I have three years left on my contract. It's up to them now," said Gibbons, who signed a four-year, $21.1 million deal in January 2006 and does not want to spend the duration of it as a designated hitter. "They signed me and they said that we want you as our right fielder. Stuff happens. I'd rather have Nick Markakis on this team and be playing a different position. He helps our team out and he's a good guy. We need him. So I am fully fine with that. But I do think I still can play the field. It's just really not up to me."

Knowing Gibbons' reluctance to become an everyday designated hitter, the Orioles asked him this offseason to work at first base, a position that he hasn't played regularly since he was in the minors. But after he started just two games there this spring and didn't get a ground ball hit in his direction, that plan was scrapped.

"I was asked to take ground balls in the offseason and I did it, and I was told I wasn't going to be playing first base anymore a week and a half into camp," said Gibbons, who has met with manager Sam Perlozzo a couple of times this spring. "For whatever reason, a decision was made. I think it was probably made before spring training. Sure, I would have liked to have heads-up before I took six weeks of ground balls. But maybe they changed their minds, somewhere in between there, I don't know. It's out of my control."

Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said club officials have been impressed with Gibbons in left field this spring, but he's still only likely to see action there if Jay Payton gets a day off or is moved to center field to replace Corey Patterson against a tough left-hander.

"I understand where they are coming from. I understand when Sammy says that `we want you to walk up to the batter's box 500 times,'" Gibbons said. "But the other side of it is I feel healthy. I can't live in the past with the injuries. I am not going to [whine]. I am in the big leagues and as long as I hit and we're winning, I am going to be happy."

"If the organization feels like it is best for the overall team for him to DH, he said that's what he'll do," Duquette said. "I am not worried at all about Jay. He's a professional guy."

Duquette said the club is having no ongoing discussions about trading Gibbons.

"The reason why we signed him is we thought this was a guy who could average 25 to 30 home runs and drive in 90 runs," he said. "You're not going to just trade that type of commodity away. It's hard to find that guy. We feel like if he is healthy, his numbers will make that a very reasonable contract. I don't expect us to be trading him at all. We expect him to be hitting in the middle of that lineup."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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