SARASOTA, Fla — When Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail signed free-agent corner infielders Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada this offseason, he strayed slightly from the philosophy that he had preached since his arrival.
Wanting to upgrade his team's lineup against left-handed pitching, MacPhail chose offense over defense and left the team's infield play as a major question mark heading into the 2010 season.
Tejada, a former shortstop, has never played at third base in his big league career. Atkins has primarily been a third baseman, his time at first limited to 105 games over his seven-year big league tenure.
"We think that Garrett and Miguel represented as good as we were going to do on those corners for right-handed hitters," said MacPhail, whose mantra has been to rebuild the Orioles by focusing on pitching and defense. "Miggi has to make the transition from short to third, and I think he's coming along fine. Our reports on Garrett indicate that he's very capable of playing first base."
Both Atkins and Tejada have looked comfortable during the first couple of weeks of spring training, but how well they acclimate themselves at their new positions will go a long way toward determining what kind of defensive team the Orioles will be.
The Orioles struggled defensively for much of last season, ranking 26th in team defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls put into play that were turned into outs. Despite saying that he erased every memory from last season the day he arrived at spring training, Orioles manager Dave Trembley said that defense is one of the areas in which the players have to improve.
"I don't care who is out there. In order to win, you can't give teams four and five outs. Usually, that is a direct result on how well you play the infield," Trembley said. "We're going to have to catch the ball. We don't have a power pitching staff that is going to recover. More times than not, giving teams four and five outs, we'll pay the price."
On days when Felix Pie starts in left field over Nolan Reimold - and there will be plenty of those early as Reimold recovers from Achilles' tendon surgery - the Orioles will field one of the best defensive outfields in the game. Center fielder Adam Jones won a Gold Glove last season, and right fielder Nick Markakis probably deserved one the year before that. The more games the speedy and strong-armed Pie played in left last season, the better he looked.
The Orioles are strong up the middle with shortstop Cesar Izturis and Brian Roberts, and Matt Wieters has already shown big improvements defensively since his call-up in May.
However, until Tejada and Atkins prove that they are capable of playing solid defense at their new positions, there will be plenty of questions about whether the Orioles' young pitching staff will get the defensive support that it needs. Izturis, who stabilized the shortstop position last season for the Orioles, has seen enough from Tejada and Atkins already to believe that the team's infield defense will be just fine.
"A guy like Miggi, he played short for so many seasons. If you play short, you can play any position," said Izturis, who won a Gold Glove in 2004 while with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Atkins is going to be fine. He played third, so moving to first, I think is going to be easier for him. They've been playing for so long, and they're working every day at it. They've been around for a while, and they know how to play the game."
Ideally, the Orioles would have preferred to add better gloves on the infield corners, but they felt that the free-agent market was filled with one-dimensional options. They loved third baseman Pedro Feliz's glove but not his bat. They had plenty of interest in free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, but it was not reciprocated.
They kicked the tires of first baseman Adam LaRoche, a capable defender, but he preferred the Arizona Diamondbacks. And Russell Branyan and Hank Blalock didn't distinguish themselves as strong two-way options.
So the Orioles turned to Atkins, an average defender according to their scouting reports, and Tejada, whose work ethic, they felt, would allow him to make a successful transition to third.
Almost every day since reporting to camp, Tejada has headed out early to work with third base and infield coach Juan Samuel, who has also spent time with Atkins.
"I think Miggi, the more he plays in games, the more work we do, he looks more comfortable," Samuel said. "We have three more weeks left. I have no doubt that he can be an average third baseman. You just want him to make the routine plays, honestly. To me, it's going to be a work in progress with both of those guys."