O's outfield clouded with possibilities


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sam Perlozzo's pre-game talk with reporters yesterday started like so many of the others from the past week. Not long after walking off the field and into the dugout and picking his way through reporters to find a seat on the bench, the Orioles' manager is asked about the club's murky outfield situation.

He talks fluidly about the pros and cons of several of his options without giving even the faintest hint of which direction he is leaning. "Sufficiently vague enough for you?" a smiling Perlozzo later asks the assembled reporters.

Perlozzo wasn't reveling in his coyness. Less than 10 days away from opening the 2006 season, he'll readily admit that he's not sure of the identity of the club's everyday center fielder or left fielder. Jay Gibbons in right is the only certainty in an outfield picture that Perlozzo admits has gotten blurrier by the day.

Essentially, six players - Luis Matos, Corey Patterson, David Newhan, Nick Markakis, Kevin Millar and Jeff Conine - are fighting for three spots, including the fourth-outfielder role.

"If you've got six outfielders, how do you get them all playing time?" Perlozzo said. "That's not a good situation. ... It's just going to have to be sorted out. I am anxious to have it sorted out as you are, believe me."

Both Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette, the Orioles executive vice president and vice president, respectively, referred to their team's crowded outfield as a "good problem to have." The Orioles' 2005 outfield was the least productive in the major leagues, and Flanagan figures the more options Perlozzo has, the better.

"The only reason it is unsettled is because we have a number of players that can do a number of different things," Flanagan said. "We have some depth now that we haven't had in the past. A lot of things can happen and you better have depth."

When the spring started, it was widely assumed that the speedy Patterson, acquired in an offseason trade, would start in center field and Conine and Millar would share both the left- field and designated hitter roles. Matos, the club's 2005 starter in center, would be the Orioles' fourth outfielder, with Markakis, the organization's top position prospect, starting the season in the minors.

But several factors have clouded that picture. Matos was away at the World Baseball Classic, interrupting the competition for the center-field spot with Patterson, who has had an inconsistent spring. Newhan, once thought to be the odd man out, is the Orioles' leading hitter this spring with a .429 batting average and has earned a role, Perlozzo said.

Then, there's Markakis, the 22-year-old former first-round pick, who has had a terrific spring with a .348 average.

"There's some special things about him," Perlozzo said. "You would expect a young kid not to be as polished as far as the strike zone is concerned. He's just very disciplined."

The Orioles manager was asked yesterday if Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is of Greek heritage like Markakis, wanted the top prospect on the team. The two spoke about two weeks ago and Perlozzo asked the owner that very question. "He said, 'You are the manager; you do what you want to do,' " Perlozzo said.

If Markakis makes the club, he'd play almost every day, and that would set up a chain reaction with the rest of the outfielders. Perlozzo has noted several times that each of his options comes with an unwanted side effect.

Consider the following:

The Orioles could make a trade and they have let teams know, according to multiple sources, that Patterson, Newhan and Matos are all available. They nearly traded Matos to the Cubs for Todd Walker, but the talks have ceased, at least for now.

But if they trade Matos, they'll have very little insurance if Patterson, who hit just .215 last year, and Markakis, who has played only 33 games above Single-A, falter.

Perlozzo could keep all six of the outfielders on the 25-man roster, but that would mean that they'd only keep two catchers, leaving Perlozzo short-handed late in games.

If he decided to pinch run for starting catcher Ramon Hernandez, he would be left with Javy Lopez, the team's likely starting first baseman, as the late-inning defensive replacement, a role he's not suited for.

Perlozzo could play either Patterson or Matos in center and Markakis in left, but that will take a ton of at-bats from both Conine and Millar. Conine agreed to sign with the Orioles, largely because Perlozzo told him he'd play regularly.

"I wish I could tell you," Conine said when asked about his role. "I'm preparing myself to be ready to play left field and first base. But we have a lot of options in the outfield and at first base."

Perlozzo could start Markakis in center, where he has looked better than in left, and primarily use Conine or Millar in left. However without a trade, that would leave Matos and Patterson as backups. Privately, club officials are concerned how Patterson, whose confidence they are trying to build up, and Matos, whose work ethic has been much questioned in the past, would react to reserve roles.

"[Perlozzo is] going to decide who he puts out there," Matos said. "That's his job."


Sun reporter Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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