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Bench raises question: Is that all there is, O's?

The Baltimore Sun

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the ninth inning of Monday's season opener, with his ailing catcher not able to swing, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo looked down his bench and summoned Freddie Bynum to pinch-hit for a queasy Paul Bako.

Bynum, he of the six hits in 42 spring at-bats (.143 average), was forced to make his Orioles debut in the ninth inning against Minnesota's all-world closer Joe Nathan. Bynum grounded out and, two batters later, the Orioles' first loss of 2007 was official.

Why did Perlozzo choose the 27-year-old Bynum, who has only 143 big league at-bats, to fill in?

Well, he was the only left-handed hitter available against the right-handed Nathan. And, as Perlozzo said, "Someone had to go in."

What Perlozzo won't tell you is that his "someone list" is pitifully limited. It was thin before starting catcher Ramon Hernandez strained his left oblique. It's worse now. Although it will get a touch better when Hernandez and Jay Payton are healthy, it's still going to be suspect. You can bet on that. Yesterday the Orioles again needed a left-hander to face Nathan in the ninth, this time in a one-run game. Again, Bynum got the unenviable call, and this time he struck out.

Observations during spring training and in the first week of the season are almost always premature. But this one is painfully obvious now and likely will be for the next 160 games: The Orioles' lack of reserve options will handcuff them like it did Monday. Like it has during this rough run of losing seasons.

The 2007 version could be the thinnest bench the Orioles have assembled in a decade - and that's an astounding thought considering this club once carried Rule 5 draftee Jose Morban all year and once employed the incomparable catching trio of Brook Fordyce, Geronimo Gil and Fernando Lunar.

For all the front office's admirable work this offseason in rebuilding the bullpen, the bench is still an abyss - partially because of what the club did with the bullpen and the back end of the rotation in the winter.

They spent $42 million to buy four veteran relievers - a proactive attempt to fortify the club's biggest weakness. But all four pitchers are short relievers, best used when they pitch one inning or to a few batters.

They join closer Chris Ray and John Parrish, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and shouldn't have extended outings right now, leaving only rookie Jeremy Guthrie, a converted starter, as a long man. That's problematic considering new starters Jaret Wright and Steve Trachsel - and, for that matter, holdovers Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen - aren't sure bets to pitch deep into games.

So, heading north, the Orioles chose to keep 13 pitchers and a three-man bench - the only team in baseball to make such a decision. That pitching insurance plan ended before the first game, when recently promoted lefty Brian Burres, slated to be a long reliever, was demoted because Hernandez's injury has shelved him for a few days, and the club must have a backup catcher. Enter journeyman Alberto Castillo, who is a career .222 hitter and hasn't played in the majors since 2005.

If you're keeping score, that's a current bench of an injured Hernandez, Castillo, Bynum and utility man Chris Gomez, a versatile reserve and solid player.

Add the requisite backup catcher to Gomez and the Orioles have half a bench. Orioles vice president Jim Duquette thinks the club is three-quarters there since Bynum is a good defensive outfielder and has enough speed to be a pinch runner.

"When you are discussing a bench, the one guy you are missing is a bat, a real bat," Duquette said.

He believes that bat is already on the team in Kevin Millar or Jay Gibbons, once Payton, the starting left fielder, returns.

"But [without Payton available], really, it makes the bench glaring at this point," he said. Another good hitting reserve is not on its way.

Kansas City outfielder Reggie Sanders is no longer a possibility because the club doesn't think he would happily accept a bench role. Eduardo Perez, more a first baseman than an outfielder, also is out. So is outfielder Marlon Byrd.

Perhaps the roster constructed this winter would be fine if everyone stayed healthy - since the Orioles wouldn't necessarily have to pinch-hit much for their regulars. But that rarely happens in a long baseball season. It never happens with the Orioles - as the Hernandez and Payton injuries proved before the season's first pitch.

And that always separates the Orioles from the contenders in the American League. They are never deep enough to withstand injuries to even average players - David Newhan's broken leg last year is a perfect example. Also, they made a conscious decision not to give multi-year contracts to bench types.

"A lot of these guys, the good ones, you have to give them a two-year contract to get them to come here," Duquette said. "And, because of what we were doing, we didn't think that was what we really needed."

Instead, what the Orioles did was attract better six-year free agents, and Triple-A Norfolk is now much deeper than last year's club at Ottawa. But there still aren't definite answers there, just guys with potential and no track records.

That means the big-league club is left in a paralyzing cycle as soon as a regular hitter gets hurt. We saw the lack of depth on the first day of the season.

We've seen it for a decade.

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