MINNEAPOLIS -- Tim Hulett knows his place. He knows that he would not be playing third base regularly if Leo Gomez were healthy or someone else were available. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't still view himself as a viable everyday player.
"I think you always do," Hulett said yesterday. "I think if you settle for being a utility player, you're admitting that you're not good enough to be an everyday player. Nobody wants to do that."
That doesn't mean that there isn't a certain nobility in being the consummate utility player, but Hulett never has given up on the possibility of playing a bigger role in the Orioles lineup. Now, he is getting that opportunity, though it isn't exactly open-ended.
Gomez underwent surgery Thursday to remove a cyst from his left wrist and will be out for about a month. Manager Johnny Oates has indicated that Hulett will get most of the playing time in Gomez's absence . . . unless something happens to alter the makeup of the Orioles roster.
There have been rumors that the club is pursuing a deal for Cincinnati Reds third baseman Chris Sabo, though nothing appears imminent. Hulett intends to enjoy the playing time while it lasts, because he knows that he has reached the stage in his career where he probably isn't going to escape the utility role.
"For me, it's a matter of being realistic," he said. "If I was 24 years old, people might see what I'm doing and say, 'Hey, maybe he can play every day.' But I'm 33. They are thinking in terms of needing someone for the future, so that kind of dictates the utility role."
Is there a way out? Hulett went 2-for-3 last night to raise his batting average to .328. He is capable of playing solid defense at second and third base. If he continues to swing a hot bat, he might be in a position to troll for a bigger role in the free-agent market, but he doesn't figure to find a full-time job at this stage in his career.
"I don't look at it that way," he said. "I suppose I could become a free agent and try to find a team that will let me play, but it's not like that. I'm thinking in terms of a chance to contribute."
He is getting more of a chance this year than he has at any other time in his Orioles career. If he plays every day for the next week, he'll surpass his total at-bats (142) for all of last year. If he plays regularly until Gomez returns, he has a chance to get 300 at-bats for the first time since he played every day for the Chicago White Sox in 1986.
That doesn't necessarily mean that he'll be back in an Orioles uniform next year. He is coming to the end of a one-year-plus-option contract and is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. He isn't looking that far ahead, but he won't rule out a change of venue -- or career.
"For me, I look at my family," he said. "I have to think of what's best for them, and then what's best for my baseball career. I'll evaluate that at the end of the season."
What's to consider? His home in Springfield, Ill., is not commuting distance from any major-league city. The closest possibility is Chicago, where he established himself with the White Sox during the mid-1980s, but Hulett said he does not see a return to Chicago as a real option. Still, he would like to find a way to get closer to home.
"I'd just like for us to be together a little more than we have been," he said.