Orioles' options few with little-used Bell, because he has none

June 23, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It has been one month since John Oates was named Baltimore Orioles manager, but he still is sorting through the remnants of the Frank Robinson era.

No disrespect toward Robinson, since the Orioles are winning (and losing) at about the same rate as they did during the first six weeks of the season, but Oates obviously would like to rebuild the club in his own image.

The changes have been gradual. Oates went to a six-man bullpen soon after he took the job. He also called an end to the Randy Milligan outfield experiment, though the point will be moot until Glenn Davis is ready to play first base again. And he recently made it clear that there isn't room on his club for two third basemen, which could spell the end of Craig Worthington's Orioles career.

Now, there is the matter of Juan Bell, who made the club as a utility infielder because he is out of options and cannot be sent back to the minor leagues without clearing waivers. In short, the Orioles don't want to play him and they don't want to lose him.

Oates won't come right out and say it, but it appears that he could use that roster spot more productively.

"It's a tough situation to address," Oates said. "It was tough for Frank and it's tough for me. You'd like to be able to give him a spot and put him out there and let him play, but I don't think that's best for the club."

The problem, of course, is that Bell is a natural shortstop and a pretty talented one at that. But he isn't going to be playing shortstop for the Orioles any time in the next five years unless something happens that no one in the organization even wants to think about.

That's why the coaching staff spent the spring working with him at second base, but he isn't going to learn that position playing once a month and he isn't going to start in front of Bill Ripken.

So Bell sits on the bench, waiting for a chance to pinch run or play a couple of late innings when the Orioles could benefit from having an extra outfielder or a more accomplished pinch hitter in that roster slot. Why is this happening?

"Because the majority of people here think he's a valuable commodity," said Oates, who would think so to if he had an everyday role for Bell. "He has an outstanding arm, good hands and he's a switch hitter, but he's been trying to play a new position and that has given him problems. He has made some mistakes, but it's tough to judge a guy on three or four games."

Bell had outstanding spring at the plate, but he has been largely overmatched by major-league pitching during the regular season. He's batting just .109.

"The only place we could play him regularly is at second base," Oates said, "and in my opinion we are better off with Billy. He's a natural second baseman and the ballclub responds well to him at second base. It's probably unfair to judge Juan on the playing time he has gotten, but in the playing time he has had, he hasn't done much."

Bell does have value. An informal survey of the scouts observing the series between the Orioles and Kansas City Royals this weekend left the impression that a number of teams would claim Bell if he were placed on irrevocable waivers.

This prompts the obvious question: If Bell would be welcome on several other teams, why isn't he valuable to the team with the worst record in all of major-league baseball?

The answer is simple: Cal Ripken.

Bell's value is based on his ability at shortstop, the most demanding position on the infield. There are a lot of teams that could use a promising young shortstop. The Orioles just aren't one of them.

If the most logical solution is a trade, there is little to indicate that one will be made any time soon. There is the cynical view that the club is hesitant to give up on Bell because he is the last holdover from the Eddie Murray deal. The theory goes that no one wants to admit that the Orioles got very little for one of the best players in baseball.

But it seems more likely that Bell's value has declined with his performance at the major-league level, making it difficult to get a decent major-league player in return. The Orioles probably would disagree.

"If he is as valuable as most of our people think," Oates said, "we should be able to get a lot for him."

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