Mercedes merits a leadoff look

KEN ROSENTHAL

August 16, 1991|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Before getting carried away with this juggernaut, this burning stick of dynamite, this reincarnation of the '27 Yankees, let's turn back the clock for a tiny dose of reality.

One day last spring, the Orioles' brass arrived in West Palm Beach, all excited to talk with Montreal officials about a trade for leadoff hitter Otis Nixon.

Wouldn't you know it? The Expos had just sent Nixon to Atlanta for catcher Jerry Kremers and a minor-league pitcher. "Just bad fortune," Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin says.

A day late, a dollar short.

Nixon is sparking Atlanta's resurgence with a .391 on-base percentage and a major-league high 63 stolen bases. Meanwhile, the Orioles are still searching for everyday outfielders and their first legitimate leadoff man since Al Bumbry.

We've seen Chito Martinez.

Now let's see Luis Mercedes.

Mike Devereaux has shown modest improvement batting first, but he lacks true leadoff skills and ideally should bat lower in the order. The Orioles surely could do worse. But in preparing for 1992, they want to do better.

Hitting coach Tom McCraw points to Rochester's Mercedes and says, "There's your answer." Melvin agrees Mercedes merits "a very serious look." Assistant GM Frank Robinson calls him "an exciting player."

Mercedes, 23, is but one unknown element in an outfield equation that currently does not add up. The Orioles' outfielders are batting a combined .253 with 23 homers and 132 RBIs (excluding their statistics at other positions).

Seattle's Jay Buhner has more homers.

Cecil Fielder has only 32 fewer RBIs.

With eight homers in 108 at-bats (the last three as a DH) Chito Martinez suddenly resembles the power-hitting outfielder of the Orioles' dreams. But a Mercedes-Devereaux-Martinez outfield next Opening Day still would lack a proven 80-RBI man.

That might not matter to the Orioles, especially if they re-sign Glenn Davis. They get more RBIs at shortstop than any other team, and Chris Hoiles and Leo Gomez should improve their production at catcher and third base.

In an ideal world, Mercedes would overcome questions about his defense, baserunning and maturity to claim the leadoff spot. Devereaux would drop to sixth or seventh, and a free agent like Danny Tartabull would move into the middle of the order.

Forget about the last part -- Tartabull is asking $4 million per year -- but you get the picture. The Orioles need both more speed and more power in their outfield. That makes both Mercedes and Martinez intriguing figures.

Mercedes, 23, is working on his third straight minor-league batting title, but his .326 average doesn't reflect his entire appeal. He shows excellent strike-zone judgment (62 walks, 54 strikeouts) and unlike Devereaux he can bunt.

This isn't meant to discredit Devereaux, who has increased his extra-base hit total from 25 to 31 to 40 the past three seasons. Without question he's a solid major-league player. He just isn't meant to bat first.

A classic leadoff man delivers an on-base percentage near .400 and converts 70 percent of his attempted steals. Devereaux (.261, 12 HRs, 40 RBIs) has a .319 on-base percentage. And he has stolen only 13 bases in 20 attempts (65 percent).

Now take Mercedes (two HRs, 32 RBIs). His on-base percentage is .430, but he's even less proficient stealing bases (22-for-35, 63 percent). In addition, he's downright reckless on batted balls, running until he either scores or gets tagged out.

Defense is another problem for Mercedes, who converted from second base to the outfield in the winter of 1989. And, like fellow Dominican Juan Bell, he's not popular among his teammates. His attitude led to a suspension earlier this season. An Oriole who played with him at Rochester called him "the biggest ass I've ever met."

Regardless, the Orioles almost surely will try Mercedes in the leadoff role in September, knowing they can always fall back on Devereaux. Manager John Oates wants Devereaux to be more selective while staying aggressive -- his 12 homers are the most by an Orioles leadoff man since Don Buford hit 19 in 1970.

Devereaux, a willing learner, accepted his new role without complaint. Now he says, "I've made strides, but not the strides I feel I'm capable of making." Just learning to bunt would help tremendously. That way he could draw in the infield, creating more opportunities for base hits.

Right now, he's the club's only legitimate everyday outfielder, regardless of his position in the batting order. That leaves two spots open, two spots requiring attention, two spots just begging for Luis Mercedes -- and Chito Martinez -- to be the real thing.

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