For O's, it's back to future

July 08, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

NEW YORK HC ORB — NEW YORK -- Having completed what most generously coul be described as a disappointing first half, the Orioles have three days to regroup before embarking on a course significantly different than the one on which they started the season.

Three months ago, buoyed by the addition of Glenn Davis anexpecting a healthy Ben McDonald for a full season, the Orioles considered themselves legitimate contenders. But with Davis knocked out of the lineup early, possibly finished for the season, and McDonald struggling to establish himself after two stints on the disabled list, the Orioles find themselves still searching for an identity.

Not even a career half-season by Cal Ripken, their stellar shortstop, was enough to keep the Orioles near the treadmill of a .500 record. With their year disintegrated beyond repair, the club once again has had to train its sights on the future.

That much became abundantly clear over the weekend, durinthe split of a four-game series with the Yankees that concluded with a 5-3 win yesterday. Veteran catcher Ernie Whitt became the first casualty of the new approach, but he might not be the last.

It's doubtful the Orioles will conduct the kind of fire sales theheld near the end of the 1987 and 1988 seasons, but neither will they be waiting until next spring to get an early line on 1992.

Chito Martinez, up from Rochester, where he hit 20 home runshas intrigued the Orioles enough that they are willing to sacrifice at-bats of others to get a look at the latest addition to the suddenly crowded outfield corps.

In three games against the Yankees, Martinez delivered five hitsManager John Oates' post-series evaluation made it clear that the lefthanded hitter is not here on a short-term basis until Dwight Evans returns from the disabled list, possibly later this week.

"It will be interesting to see what he does after the All-Stabreak," Oates said of Martinez. "Right now he's doing the same thing for us that Leo [Gomez] did when he came up -- giving us a little more offense."

It took Martinez 7 1/2 years to get to the big leagues, so he'hardly an overnight sensation. He spent virtually all of spring training with the Orioles, after signing as a minor-league free agent out of the Kansas City system. He is short of stature (5 feet 10) and has a very compact swing, neither of which indicates major-league power potential. Yet he has a history of hitting home runs in the minor leagues, and the time has finally come to see if he can do the same in the big leagues.

The presence of Martinez would seem to stifle the progress oDavid Segui, who has shown signs of adapting to the outfield when not spelling Randy Milligan at first base. But that does not concern either Oates or general manager Roland Hemond.

"He [Martinez] will cut into everybody's at-bats, not just Segui's,said Oates. "We've been using David mostly against lefthanded pitchers, so it will probably affect Brady [Anderson] more."

Evans' return would make the outfield picture even morinteresting -- or confusing. The release of Whitt, who did everything the Orioles expected of him only to see his value diminish as the team floundered, removes catcher Chris Hoiles from occasional duty as the righthanded designated hitter.

Whitt was sacrificed because the Orioles don't want to rislosing Juan Bell, the rarely used infielder whom they are convinced would be claimed on waivers if they tried to send him to the minor leagues.

"We're trying to get as much depth on the 25-man roster apossible," said Hemond. "We were a little concerned about Hoiles' shoulder at first, which is why Whitt was important to us. But Chris has been throwing very well and now that he's coming around we have to get him in the lineup more often. There's no doubt Ernie would've been more valuable to us if we were in a contending position."

Without a realistic opportunity of challenging Toronto and Bostoin the AL East, the Orioles are looking toward a jump start for next year. That being the case, it can only be surmised that similar decisions will have to be made in other areas, including the pitching staff.

It remains to be seen what happens when Evans is ready treturn. Will the veteran outfielder, like Whitt, be considered expendable, or does he possibly fit into the picture beyond this year?

What happens to Segui, a hitter of promise who appearcrowded at two positions? And, if the starting pitching doesn't improve, how much longer will Mike Mussina remain at Rochester?

The Orioles did not make the decision to promote Martineovernight, but it should be noted they made it after losing three straight games last week. Losses have a way of forcing decisions.

"It had been talked about for a couple of weeks," said Oates. "wanted to check the validity of his home runs [because of Rochester's short rightfield fence], and Greg Biagini [the Rochester manager] said most of them were legitimate.

"When you put 20 home runs on the board by the All-Star breayou've got to be doing something right. We think he can give us some offensive punch and he's going to get a chance to play."

That much became evident over the weekend, when Martinestarted three straight games. His five hits were more than enough to warrant a continued look, but it's going to be very interesting to see how Oates manipulates his outfielders the rest of the season.

The feeling is that the Orioles aren't finished making movesThere could be more in the offing before play resumes Thursday in Oakland.

"We may have to go with 10 pitchers for a while," said Oateswhose first move after replacing Frank Robinson was to add an extra pitcher to the staff. "After the All-Star break everybody will be well rested, and if we can get more innings out of the starters then we could get by without an 11th pitcher."

The revolving door hasn't stopped spinning yet.

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