Birds have room for Gomez and Worthington

On baseball

September 13, 1990|By Jim Henneman

WHENEVER the Orioles' energy crisis comes under close scrutiny, which is at least every other day, the suggested solution begins and ends with the free-agent market.

That despite the fact that the most accessible (stress that word) power source is already within the organization. His name is already well known in Baltimore, and he'll be here in a few days.

The problem with the long-range forecast is that Leo Gomez has never been considered as anything other than a challenger for Craig Worthington's job at third base.

At least that has been the case until now. Things could change.

Why can't Gomez enter the picture as a potential outfielder? In fact, considering the Orioles' current plight, it isn't unfair to ask why plans haven't already been made to evaluate him as such.

Worthington has not duplicated his numbers of a year ago, but he does have two big-league seasons under his belt -- and his track record indicates last year is a truer indication than this season. In addition, he is acknowledged to be a better defensive third baseman than Gomez.

But it shouldn't be assumed that just because they play the same position, Gomez and Worthington couldn't fit into the Orioles' jigsaw puzzle together. Not since Cal Ripken spent most of the 1981 season there has a player put up the kind of numbers Gomez registered this year at Rochester.

With 26 home runs (56 extra-base hits for a .537 slugging percentage), 97 runs batted in and a .277 average during the regular season, Gomez demands attention. And if it requires a position change, then the possibility cannot be ignored.

"It's certainly something worth thinking about," manager Frank RTC Robinson said when the subject was mentioned last night. "To my knowledge it hasn't been brought up, but that's not to say it won't."

If they don't consider a position change, the Orioles almost certainly will force themselves to make a decision between Worthington and Gomez and trade the other -- without giving themselves the chance to make a thorough evaluation.

With few exceptions, mostly because of speed, or lack of it, most infielders can make the transition to the outfield. The major leagues are filled with examples, so it would appear a logical move with Gomez.

"If you're asking me if the possibility has been discussed within the organization, the answer is no," said John Barr, the Orioles' director of scouting. "My only question about Leo playing the outfield would be foot speed. But he's a good athlete, so it might not be out of the question."

Robinson's feeling, though he admits it isn't something that has occupied a lot of his thinking time, is very similar. "People say you have to trade one or the other," said Robinson. "But why should you trade away talent just because two people play the same position?"

Gomez is due for a brief late-season trial with the Orioles as soon as Rochester finishes postseason play later this week. It wouldn't be fair to give him a big-league baptism at a strange position. But there certainly wouldn't be anything wrong with running him around out there during pre-game workouts.

"I wouldn't do that [play Gomez in the outfield right away]," said Robinson, "but it's something to think about for spring training." And maybe even before that. Robinson admitted that having Gomez work in the outfield during pre-game practice is not out of the question.

At this stage of their careers, and at this point in the organization's redevelopment, there has been no urgency to move players around. The Orioles already have resisted that temptation by keeping Juan Bell at shortstop in Rochester, rather than see if he could adapt to second base. But since they've developed the semi-status of contender, the Orioles now have to be willing to do some internal shuffling.

Gomez would hardly be the first slow-footed, or defensively deficient, outfielder to wear the Orioles uniform -- there are a few of them walking around with World Series rings. Given their present set of circumstances -- not knowing whether they can afford a trade or a free agent -- the Orioles have to do more than merely let Gomez compete with Worthington.

Orioles outfielders will hit fewer home runs this year than any season since 1961 (before any of the current crop was born). And, as spectacular as the outfield defense can be, it isn't enough to support a bona fide contender.

If the Orioles can sign a potential free agent like Tom Brunansky, Willie McGee or Franklin Stubbs, that's OK. Maybe. But that doesn't mean they can give up on Worthington, 25, or Gomez, 23, before they have a chance to make an intelligent decision.

And if you're looking for a bottom line here, it's better to sacrifice defense in the outfield than the infield. Leo Gomez has yet to play a game in the big leagues and, in some ways, Craig Worthington still has to prove himself.

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