01/30/2003 9:51 PM ET
Orioles Spring Training preview
O's enter camp as work in progress
|By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
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Fort Lauderdale Stadium
BALTIMORE -- The Orioles organization has experienced a long offseason of reflection and change, but the club that entered Spring Training was similar to the one that finished the season in a major slump.
The difference could be health. Players such as David Segui and Gary Matthews Jr. have had five months to heal, while others such as Rodrigo Lopez got a well-deserved rest after a breakout season.
"We've got some pitching depth and good young players," executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie said. "I am satisfied with what we have, and it's important to be financially flexible at this point."
When Beattie and Mike Flanagan were appointed general managers on Dec. 4, their primary goal was to upgrade the offense without making a costly financial decision. Though they pursued several potential cornerstones to no avail, the two former pitchers have succeeded at improving a pitching staff that wore thin during the 4-32 season-ending stretch of 2002.
Joining the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale this spring were former Dodgers pitcher Omar Daal and ex-Atlanta pitcher Brave Kerry Ligtenberg. Daal is slated as the No. 2 starter and is the team's first permanent left-handed starter since Jimmy Key in 1998. Ligtenberg is expected to be the right-handed setup man.
Also, the club signed former San Diego shortstop Deivi Cruz to a one-year deal to replace the popular Mike Bordick, who signed with Toronto. Cruz likely will not be the defensive stalwart Bordick was but could be an upgrade offensively. Cruz, 30, actually has more RBIs than Bordick over the past six years: 324-320.
Cruz's double-play mate will be Jerry Hairston, who will be the team's leadoff hitter. Hairston has not fared well as a leadoff hitter (.205 career average), but manager Mike Hargrove said he thinks Hairston has gained enough plate discipline to be productive in that role.
While Hairston will be expected to set the table, left-handed hitter Jay Gibbons impressed the organization with his power-hitting potential despite playing with a sore left wrist. Gibbons underwent surgery to remove two sutures from his wrist and said he is completely healthy for the first time since the 2001 season. Gibbons hit 28 homers in 490 at-bats last year but finished with just 69 RBIs. He said his primary goal in 2003 is to become a better run producer.
"I definitely have to knock in more runs and hit better with men on base," Gibbons said. "I think this team has a lot of potential. I know we finished the season in a tough fashion, but I think we showed a lot of potential [last] season."
Gibbons' play earned him a starting job early last season, and his emergence was matched by Matthews, who was acquired to be a backup outfielder but earned the center field job because of his sparkling play.
For the first time in his five-year Major League career, Matthews will enter Spring Training as a starter. The 27-year-old finally began fulfilling his potential when he replaced Chris Singleton. By season's end, Matthews had cinched a spot in the outfield, and his right wrist is healed after a rigorous offseason program.
"I am so excited about getting this season started and playing with the guys," Matthews said. "I think we can do some great things, and now guys are healthy and rested. I like our team a lot."
Beattie also brought back fan favorite B.J. Surhoff, who will hit third and platoon with Marty Cordova in left field. The club also reduced its crowded outfield, trading Chris Richard to the Colorado Rockies two weeks ago.
Veteran Rick Helling beat out Pat Hentgen for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, and Hentgen will now work out of the bullpen. Helling will follow Lopez, Daal, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson in the rotation.
The team lost Scott Erickson last month to right labrum surgery, and he is expected to be out for the season. Johnson has lost 26 game in the past two years, but he remains under contract and is healthy.
Beattie and Flanagan reiterate that the rebuilding process in Baltimore is ongoing and that the club is not a finished product. More answers regarding the long-term future of the team should be answered during the season.
"I don't want to put limitations on this team," Flanagan said. "Who knows what we can achieve? But I think we are making progress and we have some talent. We will be a better team because of what we experienced last season."
Gary Washburn is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.