SARASOTA, Fla. — In a spring camp where real intrigue is harder to find than the key to the batter's box, the Felix Pie experiment - Part II - is starting to look like a very interesting story.
Pie showed up in camp a much different fellow than the quiet, introverted, sometimes brooding young man who was force-fed into the starting lineup last April after Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail smuggled him out of the Chicago Cubs organization.
He's happier. He's more confident. He's in terrific shape. It looks like he really might be the diamond in the rough MacPhail imagined when he got him in the trade for young pitchers Garrett Olson and Henry Williamson.
There's only one problem.
Last year, he was the odd man in. Now, the Orioles have to make sure he doesn't end up being the odd man out.
It won't be easy. The starting outfield appears set, and the arrival of two new corner infielders will make playing time even harder to come by for anyone who isn't in the everyday lineup. It's going to take some creative lineup design by manager Dave Trembley or some front office legerdemain by MacPhail to find Pie enough at-bats for him to reach full bloom.
Trembley is growing weary of all the questions about how he's going to apportion at-bats this year, but he acknowledges that having Pie pushing that button is a good problem to have.
"We're very pleased with what Felix did last year, and we're all confident he's going to continue that," Trembley said. "But we need to play some games. If that happens and continues to happen, we're going to have a real special player on our hands."
For that to happen, Pie has to play four or five times a week. He cannot just spell Nolan Reimold in left and Adam Jones in center every blue moon. The Orioles need him to be every bit of the high-upside fourth outfielder he started to look like during the second half of the 2009 season.
That's me talking, of course. Pie isn't complaining about anything.
"That's their decision, the manager and the general manager," Pie said last week. "They have to decide those things. What I have to do is play hard and do my thing on the field. All you can do is get yourself in shape and be ready for the season."
It's almost funny that this is even an issue. There was a point early last season when Pie was largely regarded as MacPhail's Folly. He had been a terrific prospect who was losing altitude in the Cubs organization, where MacPhail was the club president when he was originally signed. He was acquired to be the Orioles everyday left fielder, but struggled badly in April and May (87 at-bats, .195 average, two homers, four RBIs) before Reimold came up from Triple-A Norfolk and put a stranglehold on the position.
That might have been the end of it if Pie had not turned his season around soon thereafter. He started to swing the bat with authority in late June and began getting some consistent playing time during the second half of the season. He didn't quite set the world on fire, but he batted .304 from June 24 until the end of the season, displayed flashes of his huge upside and even hit for the cycle against the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 14.
"From where he was last spring, if that progress continues, the sky's the limit," hitting coach Terry Crowley said.
Clearly, the talent is real, but it's not going to express itself if Pie has to sit around waiting for Reimold and/or Jones to come up lame. He needs to play regularly, and you can make a case that it would be in the best interests of both Pie and the team.
Reimold is coming off heel surgery and probably would benefit from a lighter schedule in left field, especially during the early weeks of the season. If he's swinging the bat well - or Luke Scott is not - then Trembley also can use him as the designated hitter and go with his speediest defensive outfield, which figures to be a pretty attractive option with the Orioles likely to sacrifice some defense at the corner infield positions.
What I'm trying to say is that the Orioles need to look at Pie as more than just an extra outfielder. If he takes another developmental leap, he would be a huge asset this summer and a very valuable commodity come next winter, when it comes time again for MacPhail to pursue a marquee cleanup hitter.
He's also great fun to watch, which ought to count for something.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.