Bulked-up Bigbie adds weight to roster push


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Even if his batting average isn't on par with those of the players who will be in Baltimore on Opening Day, outfielder Larry Bigbie still looks like he belongs in the majors.

Maybe it's the swing, which is sending baseballs into the gaps and metal bleachers with authority. Or it could be the added bulk and confidence that arrived with his bags last month at the Orioles' spring training complex.

Whatever the reason, Bigbie would make a pretty good model for anyone wanting to sketch a big-leaguer. He'll just have to be patient while striking the pose at Triple-A.

"Coming in," he said, "I knew it was going to be a tough year to make the squad."

Being the 21st overall selection in the 1999 draft carries only so much weight. Gary Matthews and Jay Gibbons were assured of starting roles in the outfield this season, and the Orioles signed veteran B.J. Surhoff to a minor-league contract so he could challenge Marty Cordova in left.

David Segui's fractured thumb could put Surhoff and Cordova in the lineup together often, with one of them serving as designated hitter. But that still isn't likely to leave room for Bigbie, who was pushed a little further into the background last week when the Orioles acquired left-handed power hitter Jack Cust from the Colorado Rockies for Chris Richard.

Bigbie, 25, still is fighting for a job with the Orioles, but it appears his ticket to Ottawa already has been punched.

"I think I'm ready to play in the majors, but that's not really discouraging to me," he said. "I think as long as I do well in Triple-A and show them that I'm ready to play at this level, then they will either move me up in this organization or trade me. It's kind of out of my hands right now."

Don't look for the Orioles to peddle Bigbie. They need position prospects in their farm system, and he qualifies after batting .302 in 98 games at Triple-A Rochester last season. He missed 40 games because of injuries and received only 34 at-bats with the Orioles.

Bigbie was hitting .400 after going 6-for-6 in a May 6 game at Indianapolis, but he slid into the outfield fence while trying to make a catch, jammed his shoulder and missed the next eight games. A sprained right ankle cost him a month, along with the chance to participate in the Triple-A All-Star Game.

"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, who was reassigned this winter as roving catching instructor. "The thing we want to see from Larry is whether he can play a full season without getting hurt."

Greater durability could come with the extra 15 pounds, mostly muscle, that Bigbie gained during the winter through a strenuous conditioning program.

"It was like a boy had been here," said manager Mike Hargrove, "and a man appeared."

He surfaced a few more times last week. On Friday, Bigbie crushed a two-run homer to center field in a 7-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Hargrove later said it was the farthest ball he has seen Bigbie hit.

That was before Bigbie reached the last row of bleachers at Fort Lauderdale Stadium with Saturday's three-run shot against the Florida Marlins, which gave him the team lead in RBIs with 11. He added two yesterday with a single in the 10th inning, and is batting .270.

"Bigbie's really making us take a look, and I'm tickled pink. It's fantastic," Hargrove said. "His strength has always been using the whole field. The one thing he needed to do is get stronger, and he's done that.

"A lot of people hit it out in BP, but there aren't a lot of people who make the ball look real small when they hit it out. When he hits it, the ball gets real small in a hurry."

Bigbie weighed 220 pounds when he arrived at camp, but he figured to sweat off at least 5 under the hot Florida sun.

"I just wanted to put on some pounds, build strength and have a healthy season," he said. "I wanted to concentrate on total body. Hopefully, it will lead to a healthy season."

He still makes the occasional visit to the trainer's room because of painful shinsplints, which he attributes to the weight gain. He also had only six hits in 29 at-bats going into the weekend, but collected a single, double and homer Saturday. A run-scoring single in the seventh inning Thursday helped the Orioles rally past the Cincinnati Reds, 8-7.

"I think we're all of the same mind that we'd rather see him get at-bats and get a little more seasoning in the minors, but I'm not ruling out Larry's chances of making this ballclub," Hargrove said.

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