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4 Baltimore Orioles The health of a corps of promising young regulars will make or break this club

March 31, 2003
March 31, 2003

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March 31, 2003

Baseball Preview 2003

4 Baltimore Orioles The health of a corps of promising young regulars will make or break this club

Jay Gibbons winced through the second half of Sweet Home Alabama,
not merely because of its predictable denouement. Watching the
movie with his girlfriend, Lindsey, in a Long Beach, Calif.,
theater in October, the Orioles rightfielder felt moisture and
pressure under the cast on his right wrist, which had been
operated on two weeks earlier. In pain not even Reese Witherspoon
could palliate, Gibbons removed the cast in the theater lobby,
saw redness and swelling, and drove straight to a nearby
hospital, where he spent four nights recovering from a
postoperative infection. "During the movie my girlfriend was
wondering what was wrong with me," Gibbons says. "I wasn't
laughing or anything."

This is an article from the March 31, 2003 issue

Although he hit 28 home runs in 136 games, the amiable Gibbons,
26, spent his second major league season with a perpetual
grimace. His chronic wrist pain was caused by two undissolved
sutures--from an August 2001 operation to repair a broken hamate
bone and cartilage damage--pressing against a nerve. The pain,
especially acute after checked or missed swings, forced Gibbons
to lengthen his normally compact stroke and left him tinkering
with his swing mechanics almost daily. "The day or two he would
feel really good, you could see the pop in his bat," says manager
Mike Hargrove. "Then all of a sudden the wrist would start
bothering him, and you could see his swing going haywire again."

A third operation and a winter of rehab put Gibbons, who the
Orioles believe has 40-homer potential, at his healthiest in two
years. A full season from Gibbons is needed to boost Baltimore's
punchless lineup, which last season was 13th in the AL in runs
scored, 13th in on-base percentage and last in batting average
(.246). It's a measure of Baltimore's anemia that Hargrove
considers free-agent shortstop Deivi Cruz (.263 average, .294 OBP
in '02), the lone position player added this winter, an
"offensive upgrade."

That lack of pop was most evident in the season's final five
weeks, when the Orioles scored 2.9 runs per game and lost 32 of
their last 36 games to finish fourth in the division for the
fifth straight year. Already struggling to get by with an ailing
Gibbons and without DH David Segui, who didn't play after April
26 because of an injured left wrist tendon, Baltimore lost
centerfielder Gary Matthews Jr. to tendinitis in his right wrist
on Aug. 23, the date when the team's stretch dive began. "When
Gary went down, it was the breaking point for our offense,"
Hargrove says. "We ran out of bodies."

After failing to impress in stints with four National League
teams over three-plus seasons, Matthews was traded from the Mets
to the Orioles in the opening week of 2002 and turned in his best
year as a major leaguer: a .276 average, 15 steals and strong
play in centerfield. "I was the same way in the minors--I started
slow for a few seasons, then built up," says Matthews, 28. "I was
always asked to be a power hitter, but last year I realized that
you've got to learn to hit before you hit for power."

Matthews will bat second behind Jerry Hairston, who reclaimed the
leadoff job he lost last April with a .355 on-base percentage and
12 stolen bases after the All-Star break. Though he acknowledges
that he has to stop chasing fastballs up and trying to hit them
out of the park, Hairston nonetheless believes his poor start--he
was batting .222 after 31 games--was the result of being
tentative at the plate. "I was trying to be the perfect leadoff
hitter, being patient, working walks," Hairston says, "but I was
too passive. I'd go up taking and end up in 0-and-2, 1and2 counts
an awful lot."

During a batting practice chat last summer, Johnny Damon of the
Red Sox reminded Hairston that Rickey Henderson was famously
aggressive as a leadoff hitter. "Now," says Hairston, "I sit on
the bench and think, Next time, be the aggressor. I've got the
bat in my hand, I'm up there to hit and dictate the at bat."

For Baltimore it's all in the wrists.--D.G.H.

COLOR PHOTO: STEVE MOORE BIRD WATCHING After a strong spring Hairston is on the verge of a breakout year.COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT J. SCHECHTER/GETTY IMAGES GIBBONS

IN FACT
Reliever Buddy Groom set a major league record for pitchers last
year by appearing in at least 70 games for the seventh straight
season.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Orioles

"BY NO means do the Orioles have a fertile organization, but
they've put together a strong bullpen that gives them a chance to
win games late. Jorge Julio has a chance to be in the upper
echelon of closers. I've seen him touch 100 mph quite a few times
in the past. As much as people knocked [former vice president of
baseball operations] Syd Thrift for his mistakes and being tough
to deal with, he did turn up Julio and starter Rodrigo Lopez, who
commands his stuff very well.... They may deal Jason Johnson or
Sidney Ponson. I like Ponson's arm, and I'd like to be the guy
who has him when the lightbulb finally goes on. He might be a
candidate to pitch late in the game rather than start, to make
the switch that Eric Gagne and Jason Isringhausen did.... They
don't have a single impact player in the lineup. They've got a
bunch of guys, like Melvin Mora and Jeff Conine, who can move
among positions.... This team is going to be a little better than
they were last year, if only because guys like Jerry Hairston and
Jay Gibbons are a year older. They might be able to hang right
around .500. And the coaching staff does a very good job getting
them to play hard every day."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2002 statistics

BATTING ORDER

2B Hairston
CF Matthews
DH Surhoff
3B Batista
RF Gibbons
1B Conine
LF Cordova
C Gil
SS Cruz

JERRY HAIRSTON

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 132 .268 5 32 21

GARY MATTHEWS JR.*

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-R 159 .276 7 38 15

TONY BATISTA

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 88 .244 31 87 5

JAY GIBBONS

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

L 144 .247 28 69 1

JEFF CONINE

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 166 .273 15 63 8

MARTY CORDOVA

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 198 .253 18 64 1

GERONIMO GIL

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 246 .232 12 45 2

DEIVI CRUZ [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 293 .263 7 47 2

BENCH

MELVIN MORA

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 171 .233 19 64 16

JACK CUST** (R) [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

L-R 249 .265 23 55 6

DESIGNATED HITTER

B.J. SURHOFF [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

L-R 231 .293 0 9 1

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Rodrigo Lopez 67 15 9 6.5 1.19 3.57
LH Omar Daal [#] 143 11 9 5.7 1.21 3.90
RH Sidney Ponson 101 7 9 6.3 1.34 4.09
RH Jason Johnson 208 5 14 6.0 1.39 4.59
RH Rick Helling [#] 202 10 12 5.9 1.30 4.51

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Jorge Julio 53 5 6 25 1.21 1.99
LH Buddy Groom 146 3 2 2 0.90 1.60
RH Kerry Ligtenberg [#] 226 3 4 0 1.28 2.97

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Combined AL and NL stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 157)
**Triple A stats

2002 RECORD

67--95
fourth in AL East

MANAGER

Mike Hargrove
fourth season with Baltimore