Millar and Mora to see bulk of time
BALTIMORE -- It may look like a logjam, but it's closer to an intricate system of weights and measures. The Orioles are well stocked in the corner infield slots, with a well-defined starter at both first and third base and strong reserve options on both sides of the diamond. That wasn't the case last season, when depth was hard to come by.
The probable starters -- Melvin Mora at third base and Kevin Millar at first -- are the same as last year. The primary change comes with the addition of Aubrey Huff, who can play both corners but will likely spend a lot of time in left field. And Jay Gibbons, who played right field and designated hitter last season, may also see some time at first.
Huff is the true X-factor and should spend most of the season shuffling between assignments. He'll probably play third base only when Mora needs a day off, but he could see semi-regular duty at first base and DH. And that's just fine with Huff, who has served as a utility bat in the past and will likely do so for the rest of his career.
"Honestly, I'm not a player who's really going to care where he plays," he said at his introductory press conference. "As long as I'm in the lineup hitting and producing, I'll serve you adequately at any of those positions."
And that's a fair assessment. Huff isn't a particularly gifted defender at any position, but he does round out Baltimore's lineup and make it more dangerous. He's hit at least 20 home runs in five straight seasons and should continue that streak in Camden Yards. Huff, signed to a three-year deal, could wind up replacing Millar as early as 2008.
For now, though, Millar appears to be the starting first baseman. The veteran posted Baltimore's second-highest on-base percentage (.374) last season, but he didn't provide the power normally expected from a first baseman. He did come on strong in the second half, though, batting .299 with nine home runs and 15 doubles.
Millar is happiest when he's playing often, and his return would seem to be an endorsement of his abilities. But then again, Millar was brought back before Huff signed, and his role might shrink accordingly. Either way, barring injury, you can pencil in Huff for 500 at-bats and Millar to equal or surpass last season's total of 503 plate appearances.
"We thought Kevin did a pretty darn good job for us," Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo said at the Winter Meetings. "[He] was a good guy on the ballclub, gave us some personality and played pretty well for us. He's certainly someone that we appreciated his work for us, and [he] was good with our young kids, too, and good in the clubhouse."
When they both play, Huff's presence likely will move Millar down in the lineup. And the same goes for Gibbons, who was often used to protect cleanup hitter Miguel Tejada last season. Gibbons didn't play the field in the second half after experiencing a troublesome right knee injury in late May, but he's said he'd like to compete for time at first base.
That's not too much of a stretch, because the former Rule 5 Draft pick came through the Minors as a first baseman. It's been years since he played there consistently, though, and he'd likely need all of Spring Training to adjust. This isn't a Javy Lopez situation, but much like the departed catcher, Gibbons would have to play a lot to get better.
Gibbons is the first to admit that fact, and with Millar and Huff, there may not be many innings for him to hone his skills. Gibbons' best bet is to serve as the DH most of the time, but Perlozzo said Gibbons may also have to play the field. Gibbons has played in less than 100 games three times in six years, so the team has to find a way to keep him healthy.
"I want him to stay healthy and walk to the batter's box enough times," said Perlozzo. "And there will be places to play him in the field, whether it be first base, right field [or] left field. There are places to put him.
"So, we'll expect him to be able to go out there and play somewhere. It's a situation that we'll get into at the end of Spring Training. We'll decide how much we are going to have to use him."
There may even be room for another first baseman. Baltimore will consider carrying a platoon player to hit against lefties, which isn't a specialty for Millar, Gibbons or Huff. Prime candidates for that spot include Minor League free agent Jon Knott and potential returnee Josh Phelps, who was plucked by the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft.
Mora, meanwhile, is old reliable. He had a down year last year -- batting just .273 with 16 homers, his lowest totals since 2003 -- but is expected to have at least a modest bounce-back campaign. Mora played All-Star-caliber ball in both '04 and '05, prompting the O's to sign him to a lucrative three-year extension rather than risk losing him to free agency.
He'll turn 35 in Spring Training, though, which means he has to be vigilant to avoid the normal pitfalls of advancing age. Baltimore would do well to keep him fresh in 2007, which may mean cutting his at-bat total down from the previous two seasons (593 in '05 and 624 in '06). Again, Huff's presence can help with that.
And that was the point. By inking Huff, the Orioles don't have to play Chris Gomez at first base when Millar needs a day off. And furthermore, the utilityman will likely be restricted to utility duty, largely because Huff can also fill in at third base. He may be an offensive player, but he makes Baltimore a better team because of his versatility.
Now, the onus is on Perlozzo to keep everyone happy by getting them playing time and coaxing the best possible results out of them. And Jim Duquette, the team's vice president of baseball operations, likes the team's options.
"We feel a lot better about the offense today than we did a week ago," Duquette said on Jan. 3 after Huff's signing. "The thing that really stands out when you stick him in the lineup is that it spreads out the rest of the [hitters]. One through nine, we have good balance. We have quality up and down."