PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - On any given day, the Orioles will give the impression that Brian Roberts is competing for a utility role with the club or biding his time until Triple-A Ottawa opens its season and regular at-bats as the starting second baseman become available.
Which is it?
Manager Mike Hargrove indicated early in camp that Jerry Hairston was secure as the Orioles' second baseman after leading the team in average (.291) and on-base percentage (.355) during the second half last season. He's also getting first crack at the leadoff spot in Hargrove's batting order, and drilled a two-run homer yesterday.
Logic tells the Orioles that Roberts, a supplemental pick in the 1999 draft, is better served at Ottawa rather than on a major-league bench. Why stunt his development? Why hang the utility tag on a 25-year-old who carries so much potential?
Because the Orioles are so intrigued by the tools that Roberts brings. He might be the club's fastest runner and certainly its most skilled base stealer. He provides an energy that's contagious.
He also is creating a difficult decision.
As the Orioles were completing a 15-6 beating of the New York Mets yesterday at Thomas J. White Stadium, they also appeared to be leaning toward giving Roberts another minor-league assignment.
"If we send Brian to Ottawa to get half a season of at-bats," Hargrove said, "that's not the worst thing that could happen to this ballclub or Brian."
A final determination won't be made until much later in camp, after Hargrove and his staff have sorted through the names and statistics and determined which players can help immediately and which ones will have more impact in the future. Perhaps Roberts fits into both categories.
"If we feel that Brian Roberts gives us the best chance to win both in the short term and long term, then he'll have a spot on this club," Hargrove said.
Roberts seems certain he can assist the team right away. That's why he amassed 225 at-bats in Puerto Rico during the winter league season, batting .322 with a .417 on-base percentage and 12 steals. After appearing in only 37 games with the Orioles last season, he wanted to remove all doubts about his readiness to play on a regular basis.
"I want to make the team. Whatever role it is, I don't care," said Roberts, who batted .348 (8-for-23) as the Orioles' leadoff hitter last season, but .202 (20-for-99) when dropped to second. "My goal is just to play well and see what happens. I don't come in thinking about competing against this person or that person. I'm just going to play. It's their decision if I make the team."
Batting first in the lineup, Roberts had two hits in Friday's exhibition game against the Florida Marlins. He doubled and scored a run.
"There are a lot of things that will go into that decision besides having a great spring," Hargrove said. "In the past, we've had to bring people up before they were ready to be brought, and I think in some instances it retarded their development. People like Larry Bigbie, Brian Roberts, Eli Whiteside, Matt Riley, Mike Paradis, we want to make sure they've got the proper amount of time.
"I'm not saying that Brian is in that category, but it may be that we decide, when it comes down to it, that it's best for him to play, get everyday at-bats instead of staying here as a utility player and getting 200 at-bats."
Criticized in previous years for having no impact players at the higher levels of their farm system, the Orioles finally are beginning to gather prospects at Triple-A.
Roberts and Bigbie, who will be pushed out of the Orioles' crowded outfield, probably will be joined on Ottawa's roster by outfielders Luis Matos and Darnell McDonald and pitchers Sean Douglass, Paradis and John Stephens. Riley, shortstop Ed Rogers and Whiteside, the top catching prospect, also have a chance to bypass Double-A Bowie, though Whiteside was rushed there last season and might return.
"With the veterans we have in camp, we're given the time to let these kids season some more, which is all good," Hargrove said.
"Probably of all the camps I've been in, we've got more depth position player-wise than we've had the past few years, and a lot of that's because Bigbie and McDonald and Rogers and all these guys are starting to get to the point where you can honestly see them stepping into a big-league situation and holding their own. It's good to see them come into camp and show that maybe the time for them to get to the big leagues and belong there isn't that far into the future."
Bigbie looks like he's ready to seize the opportunity. More muscular this spring after immersing himself in another winter conditioning program, Bigbie has been hitting the ball with authority. During batting practice yesterday, he slammed one off the scoreboard in right-center field.
"If Larry Bigbie had played a full year instead of getting hurt twice, he probably would have made this ballclub this year," said former Rochester manager Andy Etchebarren. "The thing we want to see from Larry is whether he can play a full season without getting hurt. His swing is very nice. The other managers say, 'This man can really swing the bat.' "
"He's definitely stronger," Hargrove said. "Last year he came into camp from the year before and really had better bat speed. He was having a good year at Rochester and then hurt his ankle and hurt this shoulder, missed time and never could get it all back together.
"Every year we see Larry, he gets better. That's good. That's real good."