Grabbing Rule 5 Morban, Orioles make youth U-turn


NEW YORK - Normally a move involving the 25th player on the roster has limited impact on a team's psyche, but with their final transaction of the spring, the Orioles made a rather abrupt change in course.

When they claimed young shortstop Jose Morban off waivers from the Minnesota Twins on Friday and jettisoned veteran utility infielder Jeff Reboulet, the focus seemed to shift beyond this season.

After leaning toward experience with their moves heading into camp - signing Reboulet, B.J. Surhoff, Rick Helling and John Valentin - the Orioles placed an emphasis on youth.

Morban, who has never played above Single-A, is a Rule 5 draftee, meaning the Orioles have to keep him on their big-league roster all season in order to keep him in their organization.

If the Orioles eventually decide they can't afford a roster spot for Morban, they can put him back on waivers and recoup their original $25,000 claiming fee. If no other team claims Morban, he returns to his original organization, the Texas Rangers.

While claiming Morban could clearly help the Orioles in the future, does it handicap them this season? "Not really," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday, after a long pause.

Hargrove is entering the final year of his contract, and he's about to move forward with what will essentially be a three-man bench. His Opening Day reserves will probably be Surhoff, Brook Fordyce and Jose Leon. Morban also will be there but will have to remove his seatbelt before leaving the bench.

All spring, Hargrove was touting the value of having Reboulet and Valentin in camp. Besides the experience they lent to the backup corps, Reboulet is a defensive specialist and Valentin is a proven pinch hitter, which gave Hargrove the option to pick his preference.

At first glance, Morban is neither of those things.

Reboulet and Valentin were originally competing for the 25th spot, but another position opened up when David Segui broke his right thumb. Valentin hit .220 this spring and looked like a defensive liability, so the Orioles gave his spot to Leon, who can be optioned to Triple-A Ottawa when Segui comes off the disabled list.

Reboulet hit just .133, but he had the club made early Friday morning because of the defense he could provide at shortstop, third base and second. By mid-afternoon, the Orioles got the chance to add Morban, after he got passed on the waiver wire by Detroit, Kansas City and Tampa Bay.

"It was a chance to upgrade the [shortstop] position, where we think he could be a temporary fix, and an opportunity to get a young player with an upside," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said. "You want to upgrade at this level whenever you can, but we're not going to let something slip by that will help the organization overall."

The Twins were hoping to keep Morban, but the defending American League Central champs have much more at stake this season and chose to stick with veteran Chris Gomez instead.

Morban, 23, made it to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in time to fly with the Orioles to New York and still looked a little unsettled in the clubhouse yesterday.

In his one at-bat against the Mets, he bounced back to the pitcher, lowering his spring average to .182.

Asked how hard it will be making the jump from Single-A to the big leagues, Morban shrugged his shoulders and said, "It's a difficult question."

Offensively, Morban still has raw tools, evidenced by his numbers from Port Charlotte last season: .260 batting average, .326 on-base percentage, eight homers, 21 stolen bases. Defensively, he has shown a strong arm and good hands, but he did commit 34 errors last year and 30 the year before that at Single-A Savannah.

Hargrove said he's not sure if Morban can play second or third base.

"I would be surprised if he plays a lot," Hargrove said.

But Hargrove can see the benefit of bringing Morban into the organization.

Rule 5 draftees can turn into productive big-leaguers. The Orioles will have two examples in their Opening Day lineup - right fielder Jay Gibbons and shortstop Deivi Cruz.

Gibbons was an immediate success with the Orioles two years ago, hitting 15 home runs, but he was a little further along in his career than Moran, having played the previous season in Double-A. Cruz had never played above Single-A when he got to the Detroit Tigers in 1997, and he quickly became their starting shortstop.

The chances of Morban making that kind of impact this season seem slim. He is in his seventh professional season, but the first two came in the Dominican Summer League.

If the Orioles can carry Morban all season, they can send him back to the minors next year. In the meantime, he'll get regular work with Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley and infield guru Sam Perlozzo.

"In the perfect world you wouldn't want this to happen," Hargrove said, "but it's not a problem doing it."

Still, Hargrove said, this shouldn't be seen as a sign the Orioles have given up on 2003.

"If we were looking beyond this year, we wouldn't have signed B.J. Surhoff," Hargrove said. "We wouldn't have brought Valentin and Reboulet to camp."

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