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Big league chance

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- After leaving manager Dave Trembley's office where he got the disheartening news, Luis Hernandez returned to his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field and quietly sat down.

He stayed in the same position for several moments, slumped in his chair, his eyes fixed on the floor, his hands fidgeting with some of his equipment. Hernandez finally looked up as Brian Roberts, a veteran Orioles teammate and his double-play partner of nearly a month, got his attention.

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For nearly 30 minutes, Roberts told him about his own experiences as a young player - about how he was shuttled back and forth between the majors and minors, about how he felt at times that he'd never get an opportunity to be an everyday player in the big leagues.

"He came to me and said, 'You're going to be back here real soon, just don't get down and keep playing hard,' " said Hernandez, vividly remembering the conversation that occurred in August when the slick-fielding shortstop was optioned to Double-A Bowie. "What he said was very important to me. It was good to know what he saw in me."

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Orioles officials see some of the same things, which is why Hernandez, 23, who learned to play shortstop at his father's Little League academy in Venezuela, enters spring training as the front-runner to fill the vacancy created when Miguel Tejada was traded to the Houston Astros in December.

Hernandez, whom the Orioles claimed off waivers from the Atlanta Braves in October 2006, said he has been dreaming about this opportunity for years. He has heard throughout his career that he'll never hit well enough to be an everyday major leaguer, and he's eager to prove the skeptics wrong.

"To play every day in the big leagues, that's what I've always wanted," said Hernandez, who made his major league debut last season, playing 30 games and impressing team officials during Tejada's stint on the disabled list. "I'm excited. I'm going to try to take the job, focus more and work hard."

Hernandez still needs to have a good spring to be in the starting lineup when the Orioles open the 2008 season March 31 at Camden Yards against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles are holding a three-way competition for the job among Hernandez, Brandon Fahey and Freddie Bynum. None of the three has been considered an everyday player, but Hernandez has stood out the most in limited action.

President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said the Orioles have identified some teams that have a surplus of shortstops - the Chicago White Sox with Juan Uribe for example - and might be willing to trade one later this spring. But at this point, MacPhail said things will be dictated by what happens internally. Translation: Hernandez will get an opportunity, and it's up to him to seize it.

"I like Luis and I like the other guys as well," Trembley said. "I just think Luis has good range, he's got a plus arm, he makes the plays on both sides, he picks up the ball well. He showed us enough with the bat - and I think he'll get better with it - where he could be a productive offensive player. I would have absolutely no problem if he were the guy to open up the season at short."

That opinion was shared by several others in the Orioles' clubhouse. While making sure not to offend Tejada, several members of the organization noted how much better the team played defensively with Hernandez in the lineup last year.

"When he was playing every day, we had that stretch where we played decent baseball," said Juan Samuel, the Orioles' third base and infield coach. "He was making all the routine plays, making some double plays that we were not making earlier. That's what you want. Whatever he could do offensively, that's OK. But for me, it was just making routine plays and doing all the little things that help a team win."

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Defense has always been the easy part for Hernandez, who started playing baseball when he was 6. His father runs a Little League academy in Hernandez's hometown of Quibor, Venezuela, and would take his son outside and hit ground balls to Luis. But there was one caveat. "He always wanted me to play shortstop," Hernandez said.

Hernandez met his next baseball mentor when he signed with the Braves as an undrafted free agent in September 2000. He started working with minor league infield instructor Rafael Belliard, who played 17 seasons in the big leagues. Hernandez remains close with Belliard, now a coach with the Detroit Tigers, and works with him in the offseason.

But Hernandez's focus this past offseason was offense, not defense. The light-hitting shortstop batted .290 in 69 at-bats with the Orioles in 2007, though he had only one walk, three extra-base hits and a .300 on-base percentage. Still, it was a respectable showing, considering Hernandez is a career .250 hitter with a .299 on-base percentage and a .325 slugging percentage in parts of six minor league seasons. He has never hit above .273 in any minor league season.

"When he was up in the big leagues, I've never seen him swing the bat [that well]," said one major league scout who has seen Hernandez extensively throughout his career. "But when I saw him this winter in [Venezuela], he was getting overmatched. I don't have a lot of confidence in his bat, but there's no question about him defensively. He'll improve their defense dramatically."

Will the Orioles, who got accustomed to Tejada's run-producing ability at shortstop, be willing to make that trade-off? Hernandez is hoping to take it out of their hands entirely.

"Everybody wants to see if I could hit around .280 or .290," Hernandez said. "I'm just going to work hard. I know I can do it, and I know the guys have faith in me. I think I'm going to be fine. I think I'm going to hit very well here."

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jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com


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