|Tuesday, June 10
O's getting much Mora than mere utilityman
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
Forget those "Turn Back the Clock'' uniforms occasionally trotted out for special occasions. Forget, too, the delightfully retro look of some of baseball's new ballparks.
If you really want Old School, you want Melvin Mora.
At a time when players steadfastly lock into one position and moving them around virtually requires an Act of Congress, Mora routinely pops up all over the diamond for the Baltimore Orioles.
With the season still shy of the halfway point, Mora has already started games at five different positions: left field, center field, right field, shortstop and second base. Mora has played third base in the past, and could undoubtedly play first if the need arose. Even emergency catching duty isn't out of the question, suggests an Orioles official.
Injuries to Larry Bigbie, B.J. Surhoff and Marty Cordova have recently opened more regular playing time for Mora in left field, but the Venezuelan's value comes from having the ability to move around.
"Ideally, one position is best,'' said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, "just because a guy is able to devote more of his mental energies toward hitting. But Melvin has shown the ability to be very agile mentally to the point that I haven't seen his offense drop off because he's playing a different position.
"It may be that Melvin's an everyday player, just not every day at the same position.''
Mora had come to a career crossroads in recent seasons. After six seasons in the Houston Astros' system, failing to reach the big leagues.
Frustrated at his lack of progress, he played in Taiwan in 1998 before returning mid-season to sign with the New York Mets. He made his major-league debut in 1999, bouncing around the infield and outfield.
In 2000, he was shipped with three others to the Orioles in exchange for Mike Bordick. Last spring, about to begin his second full season with the O's, Mora complained publicly that he deserved to be an everyday player.
Last year, he got into 149 games at a handful of positions and posted career highs in every statistical category. But when this season began, Mora found his way into fewer than half of the Orioles' first 14 games, his batting average submerged beneath the .200 mark.
But injuries and opportunities converged to help Mora become a regular fixture in the Baltimore lineup, even if he's never entirely sure where he's going to play.
Teammates have labeled him "invaluable,'' hardly the kind of accolade usually tossed around for someone who entered the year with a .249 lifetime batting average.
Last year, just when he seemed close to establishing himself as an everyday presence -- albeit one with wanderlust -- Mora sharply nosedived in the second half, hitting just .195 following the All-Star break.
While it was suggested that Mora became over-infatuated with his power numbers and was too eager to swing for the fences in an effort to make himself an everyday fixture -- he had more homers at the midway point of the season than he had ever had in a full year -- Mora probably struggled for a variety of reasons.
Fatigue and frustration were factors. Mora had also never played in so many games, nor gotten so many at-bats. And when the Orioles began a freefall that saw them lose 32 of their final 36 games, Mora was part of the decline.
"At the end, we had a team which was really struggling, to put it mildly,'' said Ed Kenney, the Orioles director of baseball administration. "Everything really went south and it affected everyone. Guys were trying to hit three-run homers with no one on base every time up.''
This year, Mora has been more patient -- and far more successful. Heading into Tuesday's action, he was among the American League leaders in hitting (.365), slugging percentage (.597) and on-base percentage (.465).
His versatility extends to his hitting style. Not only does Mora possess power ability, but he's one of the handful of best bunters in the game. As recently as 2001, he had 17 bunt hits, though he hasn't used that weapon nearly as much of late.
"He's just a solid hitter, a good player,'' enthuses Kenney, "one who just keeps getting better. He can play all the outfield spots and if your shortstop goes down, he can slide in there and play and you don't suffer a dropoff. There are other guys who can move around, but are those guys hitting .350? He's very rare.''
As the trading deadline approaches, Mora is sure to be in demand from contending teams, particularly in the National League where double-switches and the absence of the DH puts an even larger premium on versatile role players.
But the Orioles don't anticipate moving Mora. Rather, as the Orioles dig out from five consecutive losing seasons and approach contender status, Mora becomes that much more valuable.
Injuries are inevitable, and sufficient depth is necessary for good teams to survive stretches where the best players aren't available or at 100 percent.
Who better to have than Mora?
"People are always asking if he's (the new version of) Tony Phillips,'' said Kenney, in reference to the utility player who accumulated better than 2,100 career hits without holding down a regular position. "My view is that other guys are trying to become the new Melvin Mora.''
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.