Hope springs eternal for a leadoff man

February 16, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

Here are some of the spring subplots that will be played out during the six weeks the Orioles will spend in Sarasota, Fla., and at their temporary Grapefruit League home in St. Petersburg:

Who will lead?

The Orioles have been looking for a true leadoff hitter since Al Bumbry played his last season in 1984. The search will continue this spring, with prospects Luis Mercedes and Darrell Sherman each hoping to convince manager John Oates that he can do the job.

Mercedes made a good first impression with his aggressive play last spring and just won a batting title in winter ball. He'll get every opportunity to prove himself, but the club chose Sherman in the Rule V draft to make things more interesting.

Sherman has to make the major-league club or be offered back to the San Diego Padres for half of the $50,000 draft price. The Orioles may be banking that the Padres are too deep in the outfield to ask for him back, but he'll get a legitimate look during the next several weeks.

If neither emerges, Mike Devereaux likely will win the leadoff role by default. He hit 19 home runs last year and might be better-suited to a place deeper in the lineup, but he has shown he can be an effective leadoff man.

"I'm really not that concerned with the leadoff role," Oates said. "We're going to put three or four guys out there and see what they can do. Devereaux. Brady Anderson. Mercedes. Sherman. We'll give them all a chance to play. We'll also give Devo a chance to hit deeper in the lineup."

What about Randy?

No one figured on Randy Milligan's being around when spring training opens, but the club had no success moving him at the winter meetings.

"I thought I was gone," Milligan said. "I'm kind of surprised, but I've been through this before. The last week of spring training, I'll probably be traded."

He has stopped short of endorsing the concept, but Milligan concedes that it might be in his -- and the team's -- best interest to go to a club that will play him every day.

"My playing time here is uncertain," he said. "I'm not going to play the outfield, and Glenn is healthy and Sam Horn is here, so my playing time is going to be diminished. I like this club and I like this town, but I am in this business to play.

"I'm definitely not on the downside of my career. These are probably my best years. I don't want to waste them sitting on the bench."

Orioles officials insist that they do not have to trade Milligan, 30, but it seems obvious that someone will have to go. Horn had 23 home runs and 61 RBI in a part-time DH role last year. Dwight Evans needs at-bats, as do several other platoon outfielders. Milligan obviously would be more valuable to the team as the trade bait that might bring them help in another area.

The eye of the Storm

The outlook for 1992 depends largely on the refurbished starting rotation, which collapsed last year under the weight of injuries and inflated expectations.

General manager Roland Hemond traded catcher Bob Melvin to the Kansas City Royals for Storm Davis, and the Orioles signed free agent Rick Sutcliffe to a one-year contract

worth $1.2 million and incentives. The club also added journeyman left-hander Dennis Rasmussen and right-hander Eric Hetzel to the mix, hoping that quantity will equal quality over the course of a long season.

"We do have more depth than we've had," Oates said. "We have more guys who have a chance of getting big-league hitters out."

The Orioles, however, are traveling to Florida under the assumption that promising Mike Mussina will pick up right where he left off last year, when he came up and pitched impressively in the second half. They made the same assumption with Ben McDonald and Jose Mesa a year ago and it turned out to be a mistake. The steadiest pitcher on the club was Bob Milacki, who won 10 games. Hemond remains optimistic nonetheless.

"Very much so," he said. "We're pleased to have added Sutcliffe and Davis and the young players continue to mature and improve."

Louisiana lightning

McDonald was supposed to be the can't-miss prospect of the decade when he was the first player chosen in the June 1989 draft, but his first two full years of professional baseball have been something less than a dream date with destiny.

Injuries delayed his entry into the Orioles' starting rotation for half a season in 1990, then turned 1991 into a nightmare. McDonald battled elbow and shoulder soreness all year and finished with a 6-8 record and an inflated 4.84 ERA. Now, he must prove that his arm is healthy and his mental approach is sound.

"Sometimes you have an inclination or a feeling," Oates said. "I have a feeling we're going to have a good year out of Ben. He has been working very hard and making a lot of sacrifices."

It will be up to the Orioles coaching staff to keep him on a tight rein this spring. McDonald has hurt himself during spring training in each of the past two seasons, probably as a result of doing too much too soon.

Some relief in sight

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