The story in town today is the return of Jerry Hairston to the Orioles' active roster, and the debate over how the Orioles should play him now that Brian Roberts has staked a claim for the second-base job.
From the Sun: “Emerging Roberts second to none with Orioles” (Joe Christensen)
From the Washington Post: “For O's, an Unusual Position” (Dave Sheinin)
The Hairston-Roberts dilemma has been hashed and rehashed and mashed to microscopic little fragments, including on this blog, but it looks like decision time is coming up for the O's. For the near term, Roberts will stay at second and Hairston will DH and bat ninth. Writes Sheinin:
"I don't know that the prototypical DH [has to be] a [number] 3, 4 or 5 hitter, that power-type guy," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "With our lineup and the way I like to run our guys, [Hairston at DH] fits in with our style of play."
That sounds all well and good, but it would be foolish for the Orioles to play Hairston at designated hitter every day unless he significantly outhits his .691 career OPS. Moreover, his slick defensive skills, which are the strongest part of his game, would be completely wasted at DH. On the surface, making Hairston the DH doesn't make sense in the long term.
Underneath it all
Behind the scenes, the Orioles probably want Hairston to bring his hitting back to where it was early last year, and they'll eventually spot him some games at second base to build his trade value. If all goes well, they could get some offers from teams looking for a second sacker in the days before the July trade deadline (or sooner).
But that's just one possible scenario. It's not as if the team is under the gun to trade Hairston, who still has one year of arbitration left before he becomes a free agent. The O's can afford to wait for the best offer, or even decide not to trade him. They may find offers for Roberts more tempting and elect to keep Hairston over Roberts. As the Sun article states, Roberts's lower age, salary, and major-league service time make him a more appealing player overall.
On first glance, Hairston and Roberts look almost interchangeable. Both have shown flashes of excellence with the bat, but neither has done it for an entire season. At the moment, Roberts's career OPS is .682—essentially identical to Hairston's. Both players are above average at reaching base, stealing bases, and fielding their position. However, they rarely hit the ball over the fence. That profile puts them in the Luis Castillo mold of second basemen—acceptable on a team with sufficient power at other positions, but not the perennial All-Star class of, say, Jeff Kent or Craig Biggio.
Looking deeper, there are several small differences, most of which favor Roberts. B-Rob switch-hits, while Hairston only bats from the right side. Roberts has not been injured as often as Hairston, and he has also performed slightly better than Hairston did at the same age. Roberts is about 16 months younger, earns about $1.3 million less than Hairston, and has accrued about two years less major-league service time. He hasn't yet been to arbitration, so he's at least three years from free agency.
Roberts has the higher career stolen base percentage, 82% to 72%. His G/F ratio is slightly higher at 1.24 to 1.09. Hairston may have a bit more pop—his career Isolated Power is .112 to Roberts's .093—and is slightly flashier in the field. But after weighing all the factors, it's hard to argue for keeping Hairston over Roberts.
Up around the bend
However, all these comparisons may be irrelevant in a year or two. Both Hairston and Roberts could become expendable when second base prospect Mike Fontenot becomes ready for the majors. Fontenot, a 2001 first-round draftee and last year's organizational Minor League Player of the Year, is not exactly setting the International League afire (.272/.303/.333 BA/OBP/SLG), but his sparkling 2003 season (.325/.399/.481 at Bowie) indicates that he may have Marcus Giles-like ability. Fontenot's defense is no better than average, but his potent bat could be a difference-maker. For that reason, the Orioles may seek to get the maximum return for Roberts and retain Hairston until Fontenot gets a foothold in the majors.
Working my way back to you
For now, Hairston may find it difficult to get back on the playing field regularly. Roberts currently has the hot hand offensively, but he almost certainly will cool down at some point, and then perhaps Hairston could get some opportunities to start at second base. Hairston played shortstop in the minors and third base in college, so it's possible that on days when he doesn't DH or fill in for Roberts at second, he could provide additional depth for the left side of the infield, should Miguel Tejada or Melvin Mora need a breather. (Tejada is not one to sit out a game, though.)
However, rumors that Hairston or Roberts could be traded are not only loud and incessant, but also credible. The Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Athletics are named as possible suitors in the articles cited above, based on their contending status and their need for a second baseman. The Twins may also be looking, as Luis Rivas has done nothing special lately. Also, some non-contenders might be interested. The A's, Twins, and Dodgers have more young talent to deal than the Yanks and Cards, so they would appear to be the early frontrunners. But it's early yet, and a lot can change during the season. Beattie and Flanagan exhibited astute bartering skills in extracting four fine prospects out of their two deadline deals last year; they are not likely to give up one of their second basemen without getting commensurate value in return.
For now, the Orioles should be glad that they have two decent second basemen in their prime, both of whom are products of their minor-league system, plus another fine prospect close at hand in Fontenot. While it would be sad to see Hairston or Roberts leave—and particularly so for the two of them, since they are close friends—such a trade would be a sign of progress for the organization as a whole. A few years ago, the only surplus the Orioles had was of old, overpriced, over-the-hill veterans. Now, in addition to the queue at second base, there is a glut of hope—hope that the rational direction at the top of the organization will stock the other positions well enough to yield a consistent winner.
P.S. (May 13): Buried at the end of the Post's Orioles notes for Wednesday is this little tidbit: "Hairston has offered to play the outfield, and the team has not ruled it out, although Hairston would first need to spend at least several days working on outfield play during batting practice." It would have been better if he had brought this up earlier. That way, this in-season job training could have happened during his minor-league rehab process. But I don't see any negatives to trying. He does have the legs and arm to play the outfield, and if he can do so, he would have more opportunities to get into the lineup, and his positional flexibility would strengthen the team overall.