- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. There was a time when spring training was the time and place for players to earn coveted spots on major league rosters through hustle, competition and solid play. In this era of big-money, guaranteed contracts, that's rarely the case, even on teams that underachieved the season before.

Case in point are the Baltimore Orioles. Despite consecutive seasons below .500, the Orioles have a limited number of roster openings during the six-week preseason, which begins today with pitchers and catchers reporting.

The Orioles are bringing 54 players to camp field players report Tuesday but there are only three or four spots on the 25-man roster that aren't filled already and only one starting spot realistically up for grabs.

"Obviously we don't have too many holes. I mean, it's not like someone's gonna come in and take Cal Ripken's job," new Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "But that doesn't mean there's not going to be competition. We have people pushing at each position, and every year in spring training there are surprises, and that's what spring training is all about."

The only question mark in the Orioles starting lineup is at second base, where promising youngster Jerry Hairston Jr. will compete against oft-injured veteran Delino DeShields. The Orioles would love to give the job to the 23-year-old Hairston, their prospect most ready for the majors. In two call-ups last year, Hairston hit .269 and showed good range and speed.

But DeShields, who missed 66 games with an assortment of maladies last year, has two years left on the three-year $12.5 million pact he inked before last season, and the Orioles have no desire to pay him to be a backup. They won't admit it publicly, but the ideal scenario for the Orioles would be for DeShields to have a productive and injury free spring, making him desirable to other teams.

"Delino is healthy for the first time in two seasons, and I know he's anxious to show the player he can be, and at the same time Jerry is ready to show he can be an everyday player," Hargrove said. "It will be competitive, but I'm not going to make any predictions."

Assuming he's as healthy as he says, third baseman Cal Ripken will be back for a 19th season after back surgery in September. Ripken turns 40 in August, and his contract ends after this season. He's keeping mum about whether he will return in 2001, and his future will be one of the major issues the club deals with this season.

Veterans Mike Bordick and Will Clark will start at shortstop and first base, respectively, as long as they are healthy. Though not as highly regarded as Hairston, 26-year-old Jesse Garcia is more versatile and is the front-runner for the utility infield role that Jeff Reboulet, who was traded to Kansas City in December, held last season.

In the outfield, Albert Belle, Brady Anderson and B.J. Surhoff are locks to start. Versatile Jeff Conine will give them the occasional day off, though he doesn't have the wheels to back up Anderson in center field.

Conine won't lack for work. He's also the backup at first base and will try to learn third base this spring as insurance in case Ripken's back falters. While ageless Harold Baines will be the designated hitter against right-handed pitchers, Conine will DH against lefties.

Veteran Rich Amaral has the inside track to win the reserve outfielder opening. But he will be pushed by an assortment of players that includes speedy but light-hitting prospect Eugene Kingsale; Wady Almonte, the organization's minor league player of the year last season; and journeyman Wayne Kirby, who played for Hargrove in Cleveland.

The starting rotation is set, though who pitches in spots three through five will be decided in the next six weeks. Mike Mussina, whose contract expires after this year, and Scott Erickson are entrenched at the top of the rotation, and 23-year old workhorse Sidney Ponson likely will claim the third spot, leaving Pat Rapp and Jason Johnson to compete for the final two spots.

However, because they have enough days off in April, the Orioles might begin the season with just four starters.

"You hardly ever need a five-man rotation early in the season, and we'll probably start off with an extra field player," Hargrove said.

Jose Mercedes, a nonroster invitee, and 20-year old left-hander Matt Riley could contend for a starting spot, but both are considered long shots. The Orioles don't want to rush Riley, who bombed in a brief call-up last year and likely will begin the season at AAA Rochester.

After plaguing the Orioles last season, the bullpen has been retooled and has one or two openings. Mike Timlin is the lone holdover from last year's opening day, and Hargrove has said the closer's job is his to lose. Newcomers Mike Trombley, Chuck McElroy and Buddy Groom will be setup men along with southpaw B.J. Ryan, who was impressive as a September call-up last year.

Hargrove wants a seven-man bullpen, and Al Reyes and Gabe Molina will be challenged by the likes of Mercedes, who can pitch in long relief, Radhames Dykhoff and Tim Worrell for the final two relief spots.

Catching them will be Charles Johnson, perhaps the best defensive catcher in baseball. Johnson caught 135 games last year. To reduce that total, the Orioles signed veteran Greg Myers in the offseason as a reserve.

With Johnson a free agent after this season, the Orioles also will keep a close eye on 20-year-old catcher Jayson Werth. Riley and Werth are contenders for the U.S. Olympic team, which will use minor leaguers for the first time in Sydney, Australia, later this year.

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