-- On the eve of the opening of its first spring training camp, the Baltimore Orioles' new front-office regime continued its slow, subtle reshaping of the team's roster.
The Orioles' agreement today with former Oriole and longtime fan favorite B.J. Surhoff on a one-year deal -- like a similar deal with veteran right-hander Rick Helling the day before -- appears designed to add depth throughout the organization by slotting younger players in the minor leagues.
Surhoff, 38, technically signed a minor league contract, but it appears nearly certain he will make the big league club out of spring training as long as his surgically repaired right knee holds up. Surhoff will earn a base salary of $1 million if he makes the roster -- a significant pay cut from his 2002 salary of $4.5 million -- with ample incentives and bonuses.
"B.J. is a very versatile player, and he has played [for the Orioles] before, so we know what he's about," said Mike Flanagan, the team's vice president of baseball operations. "He can play first base, third base, left field, right field and -- in an emergency -- catcher. That kind of versatility has always been a hallmark of Mike Hargrove-managed teams."
Surhoff, an Oriole from 1996 to 2000, spent the last 21/2 years with the Atlanta Braves but missed all but the first month of the 2002 season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. The Orioles, who had him work out at Camden Yards several times in the past two weeks to test the strength in his knee, intend to use him primarily as a fourth outfielder.
The addition of Surhoff all but spells the end of Chris Richard's tenure with the Orioles. Like Surhoff, Richard is a left-handed hitter most comfortable at first base and the corner outfield positions. And with Marty Cordova, Gary Matthews Jr., Jeff Conine, David Segui and Jay Gibbons already on the team, Richard is not likely to have a spot on the Opening Day roster.
The signing of Surhoff also signals the team's apparent intent to keep young outfielders such as Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos and Darnell McDonald in the minor leagues for another year.
Since their hiring in December, the Orioles' regime of Flanagan and Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie has made rejuvenating a stagnant farm system its primary objective. In recent years, the farm system was so barren, the team was regularly forced to promote players to the major leagues who clearly were not ready.
Likewise, Tuesday's signing of Helling, a former 20-game winner who has made 30 or more starts in each of the last five seasons, likely means young right-handers Sean Douglass and John Stephens -- both of whom got extended looks in the majors last season -- will begin the season in Class AAA Ottawa.
Helling, 32, is expected to join a rotation that will include Rodrigo Lopez, Omar Daal, Sidney Ponson and a fifth starter to be chosen from a group made up of Jason Johnson, Scott Erickson and Pat Hentgen.
Helling's addition also gives the Orioles extra flexibility to trade a starter, such as Ponson or Johnson, in hopes of landing a power hitter, one of the team's top spring objectives.
Orioles Notes: The Orioles avoided arbitration with second baseman Jerry Hairston by agreeing to a one-year contract believed to be for $1.55 million. Hairston's arbitration hearing was to have been today in St. Petersburg, Fla. The agreement with Hairston leaves the team with two pending arbitration cases, both scheduled to be heard next week. Ponson, a free agent at the end of 2003, is asking for $4.75 million, while the team filed a figure of $3.9 million. Utility man Melvin Mora is asking for $2 million; the team's figure is $1.425 million.