High-average speed demon Orioles future eventually will lead off with Mercedes' tempered bat

Ken Rosenthal

March 03, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

SARASOTA, Fla. -- He's coming. Maybe not Opening Day, but soon. The Orioles can gift-wrap the leadoff job for Brady Anderson. They can play it safe and fall back on Mike Devereaux. But eventually, they must commit to Luis Mercedes.

Club officials are still uncomfortable with Mercedes' outfield play, but no longer seem as alarmed by his erratic base running and fiery temper. They know they can't deny him much longer. Mercedes, 24, is too exciting an offensive player to ignore.

He shouldn't face such long odds making the club this spring, but manager John Oates is intent on giving Anderson one more shot. Oates pictures Anderson stealing 50 bases. That's fantasy. Mercedes wins batting titles at almost every level. That's reality.

He didn't start playing organized ball until he was 18, didn't convert from second base to the outfield until he was 22. At this point, he shows far more promise than Anderson, who has batted .231 or lower in each of his four major-league seasons.

One thing is certain: The Orioles will be a better team if they can drop Devereaux to the sixth or seventh spot. Devereaux had 19 home runs and 59 RBIs last season. He could easily become a 75-RBI man batting with more runners on base.

Assistant general manager Frank Robinson claims Devereaux hit the ball harder than anyone on the club last season -- including Cal Ripken. Former hitting coach Tom McCraw says, "He's going to be a guy people pay to watch play." Still, the fact remains: Devereaux shouldn't lead off.

Anderson batted 30 points lower last season (.230-.260), but had an on-base percentage 25 points higher (.338-.313). Assistant GM Doug Melvin likens Anderson to a young pitcher with a great arm. It's worth finding out whether his .385 average last September was just another tease.

Problem is, Anderson already is nursing a sore right ankle. Mercedes might lead off the first exhibition game Friday. Given the chance, he could turn into this year's Leo Gomez -- a suspect defensive player who hits his way onto the club.

Gomez, of course, turned out to be a solid third baseman. Mercedes is too raw to make the same dramatic advance. He originally converted to center, but the Orioles want him in left. Oates watched in horror last September as he played too deep, used poor judgment and took wrong angles on fly balls.

Dominican scout Carlos Bernhardt says Mercedes' fielding was "much better" in winter ball, and club officials agree he has the arm and speed to become a decent outfielder. But the Orioles stress pitching and defense. They prefer not to gamble on a player who gives away runs.

They also prefer not to gamble on a player who might disrupt the clubhouse, but that concern is fading. Oates believes Mercedes "woke up" after getting suspended by the International League at the end of last season for throwing his helmet in an opposing player's face.

Mercedes earlier was suspended by Rochester for "insubordination," but Oates says his conduct with the Orioles last September was "perfect." In fact, Mercedes and his best friend David Segui always were the first to arrive at the park. "I had to hustle to beat them there," Oates recalls.

The way Mercedes sees it, "I've got my wife. I've got a baby coming. I can't just worry about myself anymore. I pray to God to help me control my temper. In winter ball, I had a lot of fun. Everyone saw an improvement in my temper. A lot of scouts said, 'You'll be all right.' "

Frankly, the Orioles can tolerate an occasional tantrum as long as Mercedes hits. His four-year career includes two minor-league batting titles and one near-miss. He led the International League with a .435 on-base percentage last season. He has averaged more than 26 stolen bases per year.

This winter Mercedes hit .333 to win the Dominican League batting title by 36 points. He just keeps hitting and hitting, and if the trend continues, he could force a leadoff platoon with Anderson, a .160 career hitter against left-handed pitching.

Then again, Anderson also is planning a big spring. McCraw repeatedly questioned his hitting philosophy, but new hitting coach Greg Biagini is content to let Brady be Brady. "He doesn't bombard you with details," Anderson says. "He basically lets you play."

Five weeks remain until Opening Day. The entire picture will change. The Orioles must swing at least two trades to balance their roster. They must also decide on Rule V draft pick Darrell Sherman, the leadoff long shot who has yet to play above Double A.

They have a surplus of middle-inning relievers, first-base-DH sluggers and left-handed-hitting outfielders -- not to mention potential roster problems with pitcher Jose Mesa and infielder Juan Bell. Right now things are so tight, Oates can't even guarantee a spot for veteran Dwight Evans.

Mercedes is somewhere in the middle of all this. He proclaims, "I'm here to play," but he promises to react calmly if he doesn't make the club. "For me," he says, "it's better not to be upset." He knows he's coming. Maybe not Opening Day, but soon.

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