Werth caught in middle of Johnson flap; Thrift's endorsement thrusts spotlight on O's catching prospect


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Within the swirl of intrigue and hurt feelings involving catcher Charles Johnson and Orioles management, plopped down in the middle of a potential storm of controversy stands a skinny 20-year-old who must wonder how he got there.

Bitter at having to go to arbitration over a $500,000 difference in salary offers, Johnson has stated this probably will be his last season with the Orioles. A pending free agent seeking a five-year deal, he's been stiff-armed by vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, who seems to prefer giving former first-round draft pick Jayson Werth a clearer path to the majors even if it means pushing aside a player the organization had coveted last winter.

"We've got to wait and see," Thrift said last month. "We've got to see where Werth really is because last year he had a season that wasn't really recognizable."

Werth opened last season at Single-A Frederick. He'll begin this one under a microscope.

He had earned a promotion to Double-A Bowie after batting .305 in 66 games with the Keys, and was hitting .364 in his first 16 games with the Baysox before a fractured wrist cost him about a month and produced a .197 average after his return from the disabled list.

He remains a work in progress. But all evaluations, though incomplete, are favorable enough to have some club officials pondering a future with Werth behind the plate rather than a four-time Gold Glove winner.

Pretty heady stuff for someone who's played only 40 games above Single-A. Someone who hasn't shown much power at any level. Someone who, his critics say, has outgrown the position and would be better served in the outfield.

As for Johnson's situation, Werth said he knows only what he's overheard in the clubhouse. He's flattered by Thrift's endorsement but realizes he must have a good spring and carry it through the season to allow the club to form a more solid opinion.

Sounding a note of caution, Werth said, "As long as I come out and play hard and play good this year, hopefully things will work out. But I've got to do it."

He'll be doing it differently than Johnson, whose reputation for defensive excellence contributed to only one runner trying to steal off him in his last 16 games.

Because his arm is average at best, Werth must rely on a quick release to cut down potential base stealers. But he's hampered by a lanky, 6-foot-5 frame that takes time to unfold from a crouch and has drawn comparisons to Dale Murphy, a one-time catcher in the Atlanta Braves' system who was moved to center field.

"I've got more things to move than a shorter guy," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, I want to catch. That's the position I feel comfortable in. And from an organizational standpoint, I think they want me to catch, too. If something happens down the road and I'm not getting it done, they'll probably try me in the outfield. But that's down the road. So far I think my catching has been up to standards."

Farm director Don Buford said it's not too early to project Werth as a major-league catcher, and predicted the Illinois native could be in the show within two years, and starting by the third.

"I don't think you have to worry about him playing the outfield at this point," Buford said. "He's shown he has the ability to catch. Even though he has a large frame, he sets a very low target. He seems to handle a game pretty well for the short period of time he's been catching professionally. That's the plus part."

One of the negatives has been his skimpy home run totals. He hit eight at Single-A Delmarva in 1998, and combined for only four last season. But he also has stolen 52 bases and been caught only 11 times since being the 22nd player chosen in the 1997 draft.

"I'm not worried about home runs right now. As I get older and stronger, they'll come," said Werth, who is 16 pounds heavier at 216 than his playing weight last summer. "I expect to hit more this year. I want to get between 15 and 20. I feel bigger and stronger this year and I've made some adjustments. Hopefully I can get it going."

Said Buford: "The power isn't a concern at this stage. He can hit and has excellent speed. He can get infield hits, which is a plus for a catcher. The basic thing is gaining experience."

That should come at Bowie, where Buford would prefer that Werth spend the entire season rather than jump to Triple-A Rochester.

"I certainly wouldn't want to move him. Going from Double-A to Triple-A isn't that much of a difference," Buford said.

Werth had wanted to play in the Arizona Fall League after Bowie's season ended, but a second exam on his right wrist revealed another break and he was fitted with a cast. He had the wrist checked by a doctor about three weeks ago and was given a clean bill of health.

Once he's dismissed from the major-league camp, Werth is prepared to wear a Baysox uniform this summer, welcoming the chance to play every day rather than splitting time elsewhere. But he also wouldn't mind winding up someplace else in September.

"I'm hoping to be called up by the Orioles," Werth said. "As long as I don't have a bad year, I kind of expect it."

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