Instead of seat on bench, give Bell liberty to play

JOHN EISENBERG

April 05, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles don't quite know what to do with Juan Bell, their one remaining asset from the trade that sent Eddie Murray and his satchel of grumpiness to the Dodgers. Here is a suggestion: Play him. Find him some at-bats somewhere. Whatever you do, don't quit on him.

(The author interrupts this column to announce that he still approves of the Eddie trade, even though the Orioles have reaped little from it and Eddie is coming off a .330, 26-homer season. No matter. It was addition by subtraction. Eddie was never going to be a happy Oriole again. The miracle of 1989, which was all about attitude, would not have happened.)

Bell was the player the Orioles most wanted in the trade, a young shortstop of considerable promise, and the common perception around town and in some corners of the organization is that he has been a bust. That's wrong. He isn't. The Orioles discovered this spring that, as they say in the movies, the kid can play. "He's ready for the major leagues," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said.

That's surely a relief to the Orioles, but it's only half the issue. The other, more nettlesome half is finding a place for him to play. He is stuck behind a Ripken at shortstop, a Ripken who hasn't had a day off since disco, and, having learned to play second base this spring, he finds himself in precisely the same position: Behind a Ripken.

This brings us back to the original question: What are the Orioles going to do with him? Let's start at the bottom line and move back up. To dismiss him would be a mistake. He just turned 23, could be terrific by 25. He has been productive with his bat this spring, and his much-criticized glove, though still erratic, looks surer.

Just because there is no room for him today doesn't mean there won't be tomorrow. You don't unload burgeoning talent until it becomes absolutely necessary, and that time is not near with Bell. The thing to do now is spot him, pop him in the lineup here and there, at second base and DH, and just wait. He can help this club. He can. He just needs a chance.

All this pro-Bell news will, no doubt, surprise many in Baltimore, where Bell's name is largely forgotten, discarded as a bad attitude and a bust. But as usual with stories that run along these lines, the truth isn't quite as everyone sees it. Let's examine the facts.

Bell was 20 when the Orioles traded for him, a prospect, a college sophomore by age, not ready for the majors. But then, trying to justify the deal, the Orioles made a terrible mistake and gave him shortstop that spring, moving Cal Ripken to third. The experiment failed. Bell wasn't up to it. Big surprise. Error, Orioles.

Anyway, now he has spent the past two seasons at Rochester, spewing errors but clearly improving, particularly with his bat. As for his fielding, numbers be damned, he has the necessary range, soft hands, a strong arm -- the look of a superb fielder in need only of the assuredness that comes with experience.

It is time for people to adjust their thinking. Bell is the same age at which Bill Ripken finally reached the majors. Now, not two years ago, is the proper time for him to become a major-leaguer. As for his attitude -- he has fought with teammates and reportedly been difficult in winter ball -- he has been a model citizen this spring. Is it possible that he was just young, afraid, that he just needed to relax and grow up?

One certainty is that he won't go back to Rochester, and the reason is that he can't go back to Rochester. He is out of options, so the Orioles can't send him down without putting him on waivers, and another team would grab him if they did. The Orioles' choice this spring was to give him a job or give up on him. They made the right choice, gave him a job. The problem now -- all together -- is what to do with him.

One answer is to play him at second when Bill Ripken takes a day off. There is room there: Ripken has missed almost 80 games over the past two seasons due to slumps and ailments. And let's see if Ripken can come close to his .291 performance of 1990. If not, maybe slip the kid in there a few extra days.

Another answer is to put Bell at designated hitter on some of the days that Dwight Evans plays the outfield. The Orioles, remarkably, are power-heavy this year; they might need set-up offense more than power from their DH, particularly when, or if, Evans and Randy Milligan are in the lineup together.

Frank Robinson said the other day that he wouldn't put Bell at DH, but that could change. It makes some sense. Bell is a leadoff hitter, and the club is looking for one. Mike Devereaux is having a superb spring, but he isn't a natural leadoff man. Brady Anderson, again, isn't hitting. Put Bell in there and he could bunt, run, steal bases. He's a switch-hitter. To quote a worn phrase: Why not?

Robinson said he would find Bell playing time, that Bell won't just sit. We'll see. Regardless, if he doesn't get much of a chance, the Orioles shouldn't get bored with him and give up on him. It would be a mistake. They're going to teach him to play third base, which is a good idea. They should teach him to play the outfield, too. Make him useful, be patient, wait it out, there might be room one of these days. He can help this club. Yes, he can.

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