- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Spring training in Florida usually comes replete with radiant sunshine and a gentle breeze to lighten the mood of just about anyone, especially refugees from the bone-chilling North.
For major league players, the lightened mood often contrasts with the fire of competition. Before the starting lineup and 25-man roster is decided for Opening Day, jobs need to be won and lost in spring training.
When the Baltimore Orioles' pitchers and catchers take physicals this morning and have their first workout, the competitions will get under way. For Baltimore though, there aren't an overwhelming number of questions for manager Mike Hargrove to have answered.
"There are fewer jobs wide open in this camp than any I've been in for a while," Hargrove said, "but that doesn't mean that every job is secure. There's going to be competition. We need to get better, and you get better by bringing better people in and having competition."
The Orioles no doubt will do whatever they can this spring to erase the depression of last season's 4-32 finish, the worst closing stretch in baseball in more than 100 years. Hargrove and players alike have said they believe their club more resembles the one that stood 63-63 on Aug.23 the latest they had been .500 since September 1998 than the one that completely fell apart down the stretch to finish 67-95.
The September swoon coincided with the absence of outfielder Gary Matthews (wrist), though he could hardly be pegged as the missing link. No, the Orioles suffered from injuries throughout their lineup in 2002, and thus staying healthy becomes critical for a club that lacks the firepower to compensate for injuries to its run producers.
Hargrove said yesterday the two biggest concerns this spring are the good health of David Segui, who played 26 games last season because of a wrist injury, and Jay Gibbons, who missed substantial time recovering from hand surgery. With that duo healthy, the Orioles' lineup regains some of the punch it lacked last season.
Though the Orioles continue to try to trade for a big bat, the rest of the lineup appears fairly stable, with the main contests for playing time at the corner outfield positions among Marty Cordova, B.J. Surhoff and Chris Richard. Matthews figures to win the center field job, though utility man Melvin Mora will challenge him.
The questions the club does have mainly deal with the starting rotation, which likely will consist of Rodrigo Lopez, Sidney Ponson and Omar Daal, with Pat Hentgen, Jason Johnson, Scott Erickson, Rick Helling, Sean Douglass and John Stephens competing for the fourth and fifth spots. Hargrove has plenty of options before the season opens March31.
"Any year you go into spring training, you would like to have eight major league starters at the big league level," Hargrove said. "Because of injuries, you'd like to have seven established guys they'll get innings. A surplus is not a bad thing to have."
Erickson, who enters spring training recovering from a partially torn labrum, has told trainer Richie Bancells and pitching coach Mark Wiley that he is ready to go. Erickson missed part of 2000 and all of 2001 after Tommy John surgery, so Hargrove isn't counting him in the rotation until he proves he's healthy. Helling has a minor league contract, but with double-digit winning seasons in four of his last five, is a threat to land a spot in the rotation.
The bullpen, easily the strength of the team, is set with Jorge Julio as the closer and Buddy Groom, free-agent signee Kerry Ligtenberg, B.J. Ryan and Willis Roberts handling middle- and late-game duties and Rick Bauer likely to pitch in long relief.
Right now, there's one question that Hargrove doesn't have answered, and indications from the front office are that it won't be very soon: Will he return as manager next season? Hargrove is in the final year of a four-year deal.
"I think about it; I don't dwell on it," Hargrove said. "I'd rather do it sooner than later, but I know I have a job to do and I'll concentrate on my job and it will take care of itself. If I had my druthers, rather do it right now, but also understand not doing it now."

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