O's forecast for Roberts is cloudy


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles said they were scrapping their Brian Roberts-as-utility-man experiment yesterday because they still believe he has a future as an everyday major-league second baseman.

What remains to be seen is whether that future will play out in Baltimore or another city after a trade.

The Orioles, of course, already have a second baseman and leadoff hitter in Jerry Hairston, who is only a year older than Roberts, 25. Early in spring training, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove had said he might make room for both of them by moving Roberts into a utility role, using him in center field and perhaps at shortstop.

Now that's not the case, and Roberts is probably headed to Triple-A Ottawa, where the Orioles hope his trade value will rise with another chance to put up big numbers as an everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter.

"Brian's having a real good camp, and I don't want to give anybody the impression that we don't look at him as an everyday player," Hargrove said.

"We still may [try him in center field], but I don't know that we'll do that.

"I know that Brian's true value is not as a utility player, and I hesitate to run him out to center field for the simple reason that I don't want him starting to think he's a utility player."

For the past week, Roberts has been in center field taking fly balls during batting practice, but he has yet to play there in a game. He replaced Hairston at second base midway through yesterday's 5-2 loss against the Florida Marlins and was thrown out trying to bunt in his only at-bat, leaving his batting average at .263.

Right now, other team's scouts see those numbers and figure it's more of the same. Despite how much the Orioles think of Roberts' potential, he has yet to hit better than .275 above Double-A. His past two seasons were interrupted, with the Orioles bouncing him back and forth from the minors to the big leagues. His trade value has probably suffered.

The Kansas City Royals, for example, are trying to trade center fielder Carlos Beltran and are looking for a young second baseman and third baseman in return. The Orioles have nothing to offer in terms of young third basemen, and industry sources say the Royals aren't interested in Roberts or Hairston, who has already become pricey at $1.6 million this season.

The Orioles covet Beltran, but they would probably have to involve a third team somehow, using pitching to land the young position players the Royals want. Most baseball executives still say the Texas Rangers are the favorites to land Beltran because they have young hitting prospects such as Mark Texiera and Hank Blalock and Rangers owner Tom Hicks has worked well in the past with Beltran's agent, Scott Boras.

For now, Roberts still has a minor-league option remaining, so the Orioles can send him to Ottawa this season if they choose. This becomes a much bigger dilemma next year if the situation with Hairston and Roberts hasn't changed.

"We don't have to make that decision right now [about trading Hairston or Roberts]," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "You've backed yourself up a little bit, and that's building an organization. If someone is ready to play in the big leagues, sometimes they have to show they're ready and the opportunity has to be there.

"When I was in Seattle, we sent Tino Martinez back to Triple-A after he won the MVP of the Pacific Coast League, and we weren't necessarily in the playoffs every year in those years either."

One thing the Orioles have working in their favor is the mental makeup of both Hairston and Roberts. Both grew up around baseball, with Hairston's father playing in the big leagues and Roberts' father coaching in college. Instead of turning this into a bitter rivalry, Hairston and Roberts have become close friends.

They aren't easily swayed by their good days and bad days. Hairston has had an excellent camp, batting .400, but yesterday he went 0-for-3 and left the coaches scratching their heads when he tried to make a spectacular play up the middle in the third inning but pulled first baseman David Segui off the base with his throw without first setting his feet.

Roberts, who already has two home runs this spring and hit .322 playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, took it well yesterday when he learned Hargrove no longer had plans for him in center field.

"I feel like I'm on the right track [at second base], and I want to be an everyday player for 10 years in the big leagues," Roberts said. "But I also want to make this team. ... They say you don't want to get stuck in a utility role, but I just want to make the team."

The Orioles figure he'll make it. It's just a matter of where and when.

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