Dumping Moeller might add up, but not now

March 30, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Orioles had not officially announced the decision to jettison veteran catcher Chad Moeller in favor of inexperienced backup Craig Tatum, but the Orioles clubhouse was buzzing about it on Tuesday morning and a lot of people were scratching their heads.

No disrespect to Tatum, who has worked hard to win the job and deserves to savor this moment, but the move runs counter to just about everything we were led to believe about the way the Orioles intended to groom their best young players.

Instead of keeping a 10-year veteran around to help starting catcher Matt Wieters learn the finer points of handling a pitching staff, the Orioles opted for a catch-and-throw guy with 26 games of major league experience -- or 70 fewer games that the second-year guy he will be backing up.

Instead of keeping a highly respected veteran who also has been a teacher and mentor to many of the young pitchers, the team opted for a newcomer who is still trying to get comfortable around them.

Maybe this will all make perfect sense at some point, but it doesn't seem to right now. Though no one would criticize the move publicly, several of Moeller's teammates privately disapproved.

Tatum clearly is the better choice if the only thing that matters is his ability to deliver a nice throw to second base when the need arises, but they -- and I -- don't see how that should outweigh all the intangible benefits that Moeller brings to the party. Manager Dave Trembley obviously disagrees.

"This is Wieters' team," Trembley said. "This is Wieters' pitching staff. We're expecting a lot from Matt Wieters. Chad Moeller is not there for Wieters any more. We feel confident that Wieters now, boom, it's yours. I think it's a compliment to the guys in the clubhouse rather than a negative that we feel guys like [Brad] Bergesen, it's time to fly. [ Brian] Matusz? It's time to fly."

Andy MacPhail also said recently that the time has come to "take the training wheels off," but we're still talking about a young team with a leadership gap that Evel Knievel couldn't have jumped with a rocket-powered motorcycle. The arrival of Kevin Millwood and the return of Miguel Tejada certainly has helped, but Moeller was a surprisingly strong presence in a certain corner of the clubhouse, and there were a number of young players bristling at the thought of him packing up and going home.

If we were talking about a guy who was going to get 30 or 40 percent of the playing time behind the plate, the on-field considerations would clearly take precedence over the off-field influence, but Tatum figures to play maybe once a week, hardly enough time for his defensive prowess to make a huge difference in the greater scheme of things.

And, remember, that's what we're talking about. There's still a big picture here. The horizon is not October, 2010, though it would certainly be nice if the Orioles were competitive enough to keep things interesting for a while.

MacPhail said when he rehired Trembley that this would be the first year of the rebuilding program that should be judged on wins and losses, but that doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of players still very much in development.

The other big roster decision seemed to reflect that. The Orioles announced that David Hernandez had won the fifth slot in the starting rotation and promising pitcher Chris Tillman would be going back to Triple-A Norfolk for more seasoning.

That move did not come as a big surprise, because both MacPhail and Trembley telegraphed it over the weekend, but it was not Plan A when the Orioles reported to training camp five weeks ago. Hernandez forced his way back into consideration, but the move should also be viewed as an attempt to protect Tillman from a grueling early-season schedule that could damage his confidence while he continues to work on his pitch repertoire and mound presence.

Tillman is one of the golden prospects, so the team is treading lightly with him in recognition of his value beyond this season. As well it should.

Of course, cut day is never a happy time. Players form allegiances throughout spring training, so the impact of each move affects more than just the player involved. There was plenty of grumpiness on Tuesday about the pending departure of Moeller and Tillman. That's just the nature of the business.

"Nobody likes to lose a teammate," Trembley said.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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