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Strive to be No. 25

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The last spot on the Orioles' roster is being fought over like the last crumb tossed in the middle of a starving group of men.

Maybe the fastest gets to it first. Or the strongest. Or the guy who's versatile enough to figure out more than one way to snatch it.

The Orioles are in the process of choosing the characteristics that work best for them. They have plenty of options. Eventually, they'll need some answers.

A 12-man pitching staff would leave manager Sam Perlozzo with four reserves on his bench. Chris Gomez became a lock to hold down one of the utility jobs once he re-signed Dec. 18. Paul Bako, still unable to play because of a strained right oblique muscle, is expected to be the backup catcher. And when he's not in the lineup, Jay Payton will serve as the fourth outfielder.

That leaves a likely field of six for the final spot - guys who each bring something to the table. They hope it's more than a crumb.

"We're trying to sort that out, if we need outfield defense, a guy who can play the infield and outfield, a guy who can run," Perlozzo said.

On the surface, it appears Brandon Fahey has the edge because he spent the last five months of the 2006 season with the Orioles as a rookie. A shortstop in the minors, and again in yesterday's 2-2 tie with the St. Louis Cardinals, he also played 13 games at second base, one at third, 53 in left field and one in right after being recalled from Triple-A Ottawa. No one else moves around as much as he does.

No wonder it's hard to keep weight on his skinny frame.

"I don't feel like it's my spot to lose," said Fahey, who batted .235 in 91 major league games. "I feel like it's a new spring and everybody here is fighting for the same job. They're not going to favor anybody over anybody else. All you can do is go out there and try to play your hardest and try to improve your game and not worry about anything else. Just do your best."

Fahey's audition might have worked against him for 2007. Dig beneath the surface, and he seems likely to be the starting shortstop at Triple-A Norfolk.

"I think we all know what Brandon can do and he keeps getting better," Perlozzo said. "He's in the mix. But we don't want him to sit on the bench and retard his development. We still think Brandon can be an everyday guy."

Fahey has not taken fly balls in the outfield this spring. He has taken grounders only at shortstop and second base, while Terry Tiffee, signed as a free agent after parts of three seasons in the Minnesota Twins organization, is used exclusively at third and first.

"I doubt I could play short, but I could probably play second," said Tiffee, who replaced Aubrey Huff at first yesterday. "I could probably play some in the outfield, too. I've just never done it. The more positions you play, the more chances you've got."

Tiffee has appeared in 91 games in the majors, more than J.R. House (10), another minor league free agent who's vying for the last spot.

"I don't know how much it's going to matter," Tiffee said, "but I'm sure in the long run, coaches might take that into consideration."

Freddie Bynum hopes so, because he got into 71 games with the Chicago Cubs last season before the Orioles acquired him in a Dec. 6 trade. He, too, is in the mix.

Adam Stern was a Rule 5 pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2005 and stayed on their roster all season, getting into 36 games. Jon Knott led all minor league players with 113 RBIs at Triple-A Portland, but the San Diego Padres didn't purchase his contract until Sept. 7 and gave him three at-bats. Both players are trying to force the Orioles into keeping them.

Stern has been derailed by a strained right oblique muscle. He hit soft tosses yesterday and said the injury is slowly getting better.

"I'm just happy that it started early than later," he said. "At least get it out of the way and miss a couple games, then get this show on the road and hopefully give myself a chance later this spring."

Stern would give the Orioles a fifth outfielder who can run down the ball. Tiffee is a switch-hitter. Bynum has speed and can move from the infield to the outfield, and he made a solid defensive showing at second base in the intrasquad games. House was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a catcher and became their top prospect, but he has also played first base this spring and taken fly balls in left. Knott is a corner outfielder and first baseman who hit 32 homers last year.

"Being right-handed, that was a big reason that I came here," Knott said. "They have a lot of left-handed hitters, so that's kind of odd, that actually being right-handed will help you out. Normally, you're lost in the shuffle. And another thing, I would think, would be my power. And being able to play right, left and first. But it seems like they have quite a few big guys at those positions with some experience and who put up some numbers, too.

"Shoot, I'd love to play third, but that ended in A-ball."

Four of the six candidates took their swings against the Cardinals yesterday. Fahey and Tiffee went 0-for-2 with a strikeout. Bynum, inserted at shortstop, was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts. Knott received one at-bat as the left fielder and struck out.

"It'll probably come down to the end," Perlozzo said.

And the fighting continues.

Last man standing

The six candidates vying for the Orioles' final roster spot:

Brandon Fahey, IF-OF -- Middle infielder increased utility value with move to outfield, but could be everyday shortstop at Triple-A Norfolk.

Freddie Bynum, IF-OF -- Middle infielder converted to outfield in 2004 and plays all three positions.

Terry Tiffee, IF -- Plays first and third base and brings 91 games of major league experience.

J.R. House, C-1B-LF -- A catcher until Houston Astros tried him at first base last year.

Adam Stern, OF -- Former Rule 5 pick has trouble staying healthy, but if the Orioles want late-inning outfield defense, he's their man.

Jon Knott, OF-1B -- One of many corner outfielders and first basemen in camp, Knott had 32 homers and 113 RBIs at Triple-A Portland last season.

Roch Kubatko

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