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Orioles Insider: Frustrating Season Continues for Lopez

May 23, 2006

By Louis Berney
You've got to feel for Javy Lopez. There's no way he could have envisioned that his 2006 season would take so many wrong turns down so many roads of uncertainty.

The catcher/designated hitter has been a potent force in the Orioles' lineup since he was signed as a free agent before the 2004 season.

Lopez returned to his designated hitter role after coming off the DL May 13.  (Sabina Moran/PressBox)

But because Oriole management began to consider him a liability behind the plate, in part because of a less-than-average throwing arm, the club signed Ramon Hernandez to a four-year contract over the winter to assume the everyday catching job. The idea was to move Lopez to first base and DH.

Initially Lopez expressed displeasure over the signing of Hernandez. The 2006 season would be the last in his three-year contract, meaning he is playing this year as a potential free agent. And Lopez rightly figured that his value on the free agent market might be diminished if he didn't catch, especially if he served only as the team's DH.

He quickly played the good soldier role and quashed any suggestion that he might want to be traded. In fact, he announced excitement over the idea of playing first base for the Orioles. Having taken a lot of hits in his 14 years as a big league catcher, playing first might give him the chance to put less stress on his 35-year-old body and prolong his career. In his first season in Baltimore, he didn't get much of a break from catching, and he lobbied to play first base from time to time. During batting practice he would take a first baseman's mitt to the field and take grounders just to get in some practice.

But when he showed up as a first baseman at spring training this February, he neglected to bring along his defensive skills. Manager Sam Perlozzo had announced that Lopez would be the team's regular first baseman, but after each day in training camp, Lopez looked increasingly out of place at the position. It wasn't for lack of trying, but it became apparent that Lopez simply lacked the instincts and skills to handle regular first base chores at a big league level.

His hitting also was subpar in the exhibition season. At the end of spring training, Perlozzo said the Orioles were ending the experiment with Lopez at first, at least until he could get his hitting stroke back.

Lopez is unlikely to get any time at first this year, save in an emergency situation. As the season began, he was the Orioles' full-time DH.

Unfortunately, his bat remained far quieter than usual. On Opening Day, Perlozzo placed Lopez eighth in the order, the first time in his Oriole career he had batted that low in the lineup. After 11 games, Lopez was hitting under .200 with only one home run.

After an 0-for-14 stretch near the end of April, Lopez was yanked from the lineup because of back spasms and was placed on the disabled list. Lopez had endured a number of injuries since joining that Orioles that have kept him out of the lineup.

When Lopez returned from the disabled list on May 13, his bat finally came alive. He homered in his first game back. Since coming off the DL, he is hitting .391 and has established himself once again as one of the big bats in the Orioles' lineup.

When the team began interleague play on May 19 with a three-game set in Washington, however, Lopez was absent from the lineup. With no DL in National League parks, there was no spot on the field for Lopez. Perlozzo, who didn't discuss the situation with Lopez before the games in Washington, played Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar at first. Lopez did play the third game, as catcher. But Perlozzo described that move more as a chance to give Hernandez some rest than to get Lopez some playing time.

Lopez has continued to accept his reduced status on the team without a complaint. But it is unlikely he will return to Baltimore next year. And with his playing time restricted to the DH role and the occasional back-up catching stint, his potential earning power will be lower on the free agent market this winter. Lopez still can contribute significantly to the Orioles' offense, and he has plenty of motivation to show that he remains a dangerous hitter.

But this is not how Javy Lopez expected his Oriole career to evolve.

Issue 1.5: May 25, 2006