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4 Baltimore Orioles Javy Lopez adds punch with his bat, but it's how he handles this staff that's key

April 05, 2004
April 05, 2004

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April 5, 2004

Baseball Preview 2004

4 Baltimore Orioles Javy Lopez adds punch with his bat, but it's how he handles this staff that's key

One afternoon in spring training Omar Daal, a 32-year-old
lefthander trying to keep his spot in the Orioles' rotation, took
the mound against the Marlins needing a strong outing. If you're
not familiar with Daal, he's the one with an overhand motion that
appears as if his left wrist hardly bends when he throws, and his
ball comes to the plate slightly quicker than a knuckleballer's.
If his ball doesn't move, and if his catcher doesn't help confuse
the hitters by varying the target, then Daal has an excellent
chance to look like the 4-11 slop-ball artist he was in 2003.

This is an article from the April 5, 2004 issue

On this sun-splashed day in Fort Lauderdale, though, Daal threw
his stuff to spots with great success. The catcher, free-agent
signee Javy Lopez, moved from low and an inch outside on one
pitch to inside and up on the next. For each batter no two
targets were alike. Daal threw three shutout innings, allowing
two hits and a walk.

"That's what I want to do here," Lopez says. "I know how to
handle a game. I know how to handle a staff: Don't rush, keep in
control of the game, work the count and make sure the hitter has
no clue what pitch is coming or where the location is. That's the
only way pitchers can succeed in the big leagues."

After 12 years with the Braves, Lopez begins anew in Baltimore as
a vital part of a revamped lineup but also as something of a
mystery: Will he be the player who last year hit 43 home runs (a
major league record for a catcher) and drove in 109 runs or the
one who put up the pedestrian numbers--an average of 16 homers
and 63 RBIs per season--over a four-year stretch ending in 2002?
Can he guide a weak pitching staff through the powerful batting
orders of the AL East or was his reputation enhanced by the
stellar staffs he worked with in Atlanta?

If he's at his best offensively and defensively, the Orioles
could be even better than expected. Lopez will start the season
batting fifth, behind fellow free-agent acquisitions Miguel
Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro and ahead of 100-RBI rightfielder Jay
Gibbons. Though Lopez's numbers last year were out of character,
his chances of duplicating them are bolstered by his playing in a
home run haven like Camden Yards. "Why can't he do it again?"
asks new manager Lee Mazzilli, the former Yankees coach. "Tell
me, what is a 'career year' anyway? There's no reason why a good
hitter, which he is, can't keep hitting the way he hit last year.
Plus, he doesn't have to hit 30 homers to be just as productive
offensively in my eyes."

Lopez said his awful 2002 season (.233, 11 homers, 52 RBIs) was
the catalyst for his great '03. "The anger and frustration of
that season pushed me to work harder [in the off-season]," says
Lopez, "and I felt better physically all last year." That enabled
him to break Todd Hundley's 1996 record for homers by a catcher
(41), but Lopez isn't obsessed with setting the record a second
straight year. "That's not why I'm here," he says. "I'm here to
win. I'm here to share the experience of being in the playoffs
every year in Atlanta and to help guys learn how to win. If I
have to do it offensively or defensively, or both, it doesn't
matter to me."

Lopez caught 120 games for Atlanta last year--as always, sitting
out the starts by finicky Greg Maddux until the postseason--and
served as the DH in three interleague games. The Orioles would
like him to catch around 130 games and DH often when he's not
behind the plate. "I don't like the DH," Lopez says. "It's
boring. I'm going to have to learn how to handle it, to keep my
head in the game."

Fact is, you wonder what Lopez, who had 495 plate appearances
last year, could do in 550--particularly with extra at bats in
Baltimore's park. The left centerfield power alley at Camden
Yards is 364 feet, 16 feet shorter than at Atlanta's Turner
Field. But he'll prove just as valuable if he can keep a rotation
with a miscast ace, Sidney Ponson (58-65 lifetime), and question
marks at the four other spots (Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth,
Rodrigo Lopez and Matt Riley) afloat. "I want a catcher who
controls the game," says Ainsworth, who arrived from San
Francisco last year in a trading-deadline deal that sent Ponson,
a free agent after last season, west for two months. "I want a
catcher I can trust, and he's got my trust because of all the
great pitchers he caught in Atlanta. I think he's going to be a
great leader for us."

The Orioles' season depends on that. --P.K.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER LATE-BREAKING Lopez had his career year at 32 last season, but hitter-friendly Camden Yards should keep him feeling young.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES PONSON

IN FACT

Last season Javy Lopez led the majors with a ratio of one home
run per 11.5 plate appearances.

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

"This is a tremendously improved team, and Lee Mazzilli will be
good for them, coming from a winner. Unfortunately, they are in
the wrong division.... Though the starting pitching is suspect,
Kurt Ainsworth has been impressive with four quality pitches, and
Sidney Ponson has matured and is in good shape.... Jorge Julio
has a great arm; he's becoming a good, young closer.... Melvin
Mora will do a nice job at third base. He's such a good athlete
and has good instincts, and he can hit.... The outfield--Larry
Bigbie, Luis Matos and Jay Gibbons--is young but talented. Bigbie
is very athletic and reminds me of a young Steve Finley; he's a
gap hitter with some power. Coming off the bench, Jack Cust has
big potential too. If he gets 300 at bats, he could hit 25 home
runs.... Brian Roberts and Jerry Hairston were battling for
second base before Hairston broke a finger. Either of them will
be good there.... For all the bad moves they made in the late
'90s, they've brought in good guys in recent deals, including
Ainsworth, Julio, Mora and Rodrigo Lopez."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

2B Roberts
3B Mora
SS Tejada
1B Palmeiro
C Lopez
RF Gibbons
DH Surhoff
LF Bigbie
CF Matos

LUIS MATOS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 115 .303 13 45 15

JAY GIBBONS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 98 .277 23 100 0

BRIAN ROBERTS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 144 .270 5 41 23

RAFAEL PALMEIRO [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 58 .260 38 112 2

JAVY LOPEZ [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 16 .328 43 109 0

MELVIN MORA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 136 .317 15 48 6

MIGUEL TEJADA [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 12 .278 27 106 10

LARRY BIGBIE
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 169 .303 9 31 7

BENCH

JERRY HAIRSTON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 232 .271 2 21 14

DAVID SEGUI
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-L 273 .263 5 25 1

DESIGNATED HITTER

B.J. SURHOFF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 241 .295 5 41 2

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Sidney Ponson 48 17 12 7.0 1.26 3.75
[New acquisition]
LH Eric DuBose 89 3 6 6.3 1.15 3.79
RH Kurt Ainsworth 148 5 5 6.0 1.45 4.08
RH Rodrigo Lopez 154 7 10 5.7 1.57 5.82
LH Matt Riley (R)* 163 4 2 5.4 1.40 3.58

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Jorge Julio 77 0 7 36 1.52 4.38
RH Mike DeJean 186 5 8 19 1.51 4.68
[New acquisition]
LH B.J. Ryan 208 4 1 0 1.37 3.40

2003 RECORD
71-91
fourth in AL East

MANAGER
Lee Mazzilli
first season with Baltimore

(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)