FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - At 8:30 a.m. yesterday, the Orioles tentatively set their roster for Opening Day by placing John Valentin on waivers and retaining Jeff Reboulet and Jose Leon as their utility infielders.
About seven hours later, it was much firmer - and missing Reboulet.
The Orioles claimed shortstop Jose Morban off waivers from the Minnesota Twins and released Reboulet, who was running sprints in the outfield during the ninth inning when summoned into the manager's office.
Reboulet was told in the morning that he was part of the 25-man roster, but circumstances might force a change. It turned out to be Morban, a Rule 5 draft pick who must remain with the Orioles all season or be offered back to the Texas Rangers, his original team. The Twins took him at the winter meetings but decided to keep veteran Chris Gomez as Cristian Guzman's backup.
Morban, 23, hasn't risen above Single-A in six pro seasons, including two in the Dominican Summer League. Last year, he batted .260 with eight homers and 60 RBIs and 21 stolen bases with Port Charlotte of the Florida State League. Though he has committed 30 and 34 errors the past two seasons, the Orioles project him as an everyday shortstop in the majors once he matures - and a player who could bypass Ed Rogers, once rated among their top prospects.
"We'll play him some and see how it goes, see where he's at," said manager Mike Hargrove, whose final roster must be submitted to the commissioner's office by midnight tonight.
Orioles scout Bruce Kison has been evaluating Morban, who's batting .206 this spring. The entire team got a close look at him during a March 4 exhibition game, when he hit a three-run homer off Omar Daal.
"As spring went on and we looked at what our needs were, we thought he'd be a pretty good fit," said executive vice president Jim Beattie, who signed free-agent shortstop Deivi Cruz to a one-year contract last winter. "He shouldn't be in the big leagues as far as what's best for his development, but that's typical of the Rule 5 draft. We'll protect him as much as possible, but there are ways for us to get him in games and give him some experience."
Reboulet, 38, had signed a minor-league contract while attempting to return to Baltimore, where he played from 1997 to 1999. He batted .133 in 19 games and was bothered by a sore left leg. The Orioles would have used him as a defensive replacement in the late innings, most frequently at third base.
"It's hard to take, but that's the way the game is now," he said. "As an older player, there's always that potential guy they take off the Rule 5 who will get you all the time. Maybe he's not cut out to do what I'm doing, but they try to catch lightning in a bottle down the road. That's life in baseball. I can't be bitter about it."
By keeping Leon over Valentin, who signed a minor-league contract the same day as Reboulet, the Orioles saved an opening on their 40-man roster. They also can send Leon to Triple-A Ottawa when David Segui comes off the disabled list.
Leon has been used mostly at third base, but he also can play first - though not nearly as well - and the corner outfield positions. He's also been working with Rick Dempsey in case the Orioles need an emergency catcher.
"I'll try to do my best to stay as long as I can," said Leon, who's batting .425 going into today's final exhibition game against the Mets at Shea Stadium. "I think most of my job is going to be as a pinch hitter off the bench. Wherever they need me, I'll be ready."
Segui went on the disabled list Thursday retroactive to March 21 with a displaced fracture in his right thumb. Eligible to return on April 5, he intends to be in the lineup, which would put Leon in Triple-A Ottawa.
Swinging from both sides of the plate, Segui took batting practice again yesterday and buried a few balls into the hedges above the outfield fence. He said the thumb stings only when he's jammed by a pitch. "But it would sting even if it wasn't broken," he said. Asked about being ready on April 5, Segui said, "I could play today."
Among yesterday's flurry of moves, the Orioles put Morban, outfielder B.J. Surhoff and pitcher Rick Helling on the 40-man roster. To create room, pitcher Scott Erickson and outfielder Albert Belle were moved to the 60-day disabled list. The Orioles were one player below their limit before yesterday, and Morban took the spot that belonged to pitcher Steve Bechler, who died on Feb. 17.
The Orioles also optioned Larry Bigbie, Brian Roberts and Travis Driskill to Ottawa and reassigned catcher Steve Lomasney to minor-league camp.
During Thursday's staff meeting, Hargrove listed Reboulet when asked by a team official which player he'd need most from among the utility candidates. Pinch-hitting opportunities figured to be scarce, and once Segui returned, either Surhoff or Marty Cordova would be available on the bench. Hargrove valued Reboulet's glove, though not enough to pass on Morban, and Valentin's offensive credentials didn't fit.
Valentin was batting .220 with one homer in 21 games. He wants to play three more seasons, but didn't rule out retiring if no other opportunities become available.
"Grover told me it was a situation where it had nothing to do with my physical skills or what I bring to the table to help a team win games. I wasn't going to play much," said Valentin, 36, who had reconstructive surgery on his left knee in 2000.
"It's very important to have veteran leadership as well as knowing what to do when facing tough pitchers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings with men in scoring position. Sometimes when you don't have that, you find yourself in trouble. But that's the decision they made and I respect that."
NOTES: Sidney Ponson had a magnetic resonance imaging test on his left ankle yesterday, which revealed only a bruise. He's tentatively scheduled to pitch tomorrow in Sarasota, Fla. ... Helling's start today has been moved to Sarasota because rain is forecast in New York. Driskill will start vs. the Mets. ... A team official said fewer than 1,500 tickets remain for Opening Day, and the game will be sold out. The Orioles made them available to season-ticket holders.