O's head into '07 with right mix of outfielders
BALTIMORE -- From the moment the offseason started, the Orioles had a clear goal. Baltimore was charged with evening out its outfield, which meant finding a full-time left fielder and a right-handed bat to mesh with the on-hand talent. The O's succeeded on both counts by signing Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton to multiyear deals.
While the exact outfield alignment may change from day-to-day, Payton and Huff give the Orioles an excess of options. In 2006, Baltimore broke camp with Jeff Conine as its regular left fielder, and he struggled through a tough first half before he was traded to Philadelphia in August. After that, the situation really went awry with his replacements.
Now, the Orioles won't have to trot out overmatched infielders such as Fernando Tatis and Brandon Fahey to play the outfield. They have Nick Markakis entrenched in right field and Corey Patterson in center, but both may have to sit against certain southpaw pitchers. Payton, who can play all three slots, will help cover for that.
"I don't expect to start 162 games," Payton added at his introductory press conference. "I'll hit anywhere, one through nine. Wherever they put me. I know my role."
Payton's role has changed a bit since he signed. Huff wasn't an Oriole at the time, and many people assumed Payton would be the team's everyday left fielder. And he'll still probably play there a lot, because Huff is capable of playing both infield corners and serving as a designated hitter. Payton's strength, meanwhile, is defense.
And he's not alone in that regard. Patterson is one of the game's elite ball hawks, gliding all over the outfield to make difficult catches look easy. The 27-year-old even made a few plays at the wall last season -- one of which injured his right shoulder and limited him down the stretch. If that happens again in 2007, Payton will slide over.
Markakis is also an excellent defender, gifted with range and a strong throwing arm. In '06, the rookie racked up seven assists, serving notice to the rest of the American League that he can throw accurately and throw hard. Markakis also saw time in left and center, but he seemed much more comfortable and aware in right field.
That sense of security even extended to Markakis' offense. The former first-round pick endured a slow transition to the big leagues, batting .286 with just one home run in the first half. Markakis busted out after the All-Star break, hitting 15 home runs and putting together two full months (July and August) with an average higher than .350 (.403 and .358).
Baltimore expects more growth from Markakis and already considers him one of the most patient players on the team. The 23-year-old is expected to bat in the No. 3 hole in 2007, right in front of shortstop Miguel Tejada. And Huff is expected to hit behind Tejada, which would provide the O's with a strong 3-4-5 punch.
Huff should be up for the assignment, and he should be familiar with all the pitchers in the AL East. The former Devil Ray has spent all but a half-season of his career in the East, and he has more homers against the Orioles (20) than any other team. His exit from Tampa Bay got messy, but Huff has put that all behind him.
"I appreciate Tampa Bay," Huff said weeks ago. "If it wasn't for Tampa Bay, I may not have made the big leagues as fast as I did. It was a place to grow up, learn the league and learn how to be a big leaguer. Toward the end, it got to the point where you want to move on and have a chance to win. ... You couldn't have been in a better place to start off."
Patterson was solid for the Orioles last season, batting .276 with 16 homers and 45 stolen bases. He had a pronounced performance split, though, batting .301 with a .341 on-base percentage against right-handers compared to a .207 average and a .238 on-base mark against lefties. In 2007, he won't have to worry about southpaws.
Payton will take over in center field against most left-handers, which should allow Patterson to stay fresh throughout the season. It should also keep the outfield alignment humming, giving everyone a role and leaving nobody to rot on the bench. Huff and Markakis are also left-handed hitters, but they handle southpaws better than Patterson.
Baltimore may even play Jay Gibbons in the outfield on occasion, but since he's also a left-handed hitter, he can't help with platoon issues. Gibbons was the incumbent right fielder when a right knee injury took him out of the lineup. Now he's the DH, but Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said he'd like to see him play the field occasionally.
"There's that potential that he could be out in left field a little more than you you'd expect," Perlozzo said at the Winter Meetings in December. "I want him to stay healthy and walk to the batter's box enough times. And there will be places to play him in the field. Whether it be first base, right field [or] left field, there's places to put him.
"So, we'll expect him to be able to go out there and play somewhere."