For real or not? Martinez not guaranteed a job despite past success

March 04, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Chito Martinez is either the forgotten man among Orioles outfielders, or the one everybody takes for granted.

A year ago, manager John Oates admits he wasn't impressed. And even after hitting 33 home runs (20 at Rochester, 13 with the Orioles), Martinez realizes his position on the team is not guaranteed.

"I feel like my chances are good, certainly better than average," said the left-handed hitter. "I feel confident, but I don't want to come out and say I've got a position nailed down. I want to cover all the bases."

Oates is faced with a numbers crunch in the outfield, assuring that somebody will have to be traded, or sent back to the minor leagues. "It would be kind of tough to argue with the numbers he [Martinez] put up and say he can't do the job," said Oates.

"He did a good job in the outfield and hit with power. If he's able to adjust, he'll stay around a long time."

That's a lot more than Oates could say last year, when he was a coach on Frank Robinson's staff. "Honestly, I wasn't very high on him last spring," said Oates. "I remember in one conversation I had with Greg Biagini [now a coach, but the Rochester manager in 1991] that I said I didn't see a whole lot that I liked.

"But when he hit 20 home runs before July 4th, we went with Greg's recommendation and said, 'Let's give him a chance.' He got off to a great start and kept going. Now, we've got to wait and see what adjustments the pitchers make with him, and what he does."

Of all the people in the organization, Biagini was the least surprised by Martinez' performance. "I'd been trying to get him for four years," said Biagini. "I saw him at Memphis in 1986 when was he was only a kid, and the ball jumped off his bat."

During seven years in the Kansas City organization, Martinez made it to the big-league camp only once despite hitting 44 home runs in his last two seasons. That influenced him to sign with the Orioles as a minor-league free agent last year.

"I was the same hitter last year that I was in 1990," said Martinez, who nevertheless admits he progressed in certain areas under Biagini. "I go to leftfield more now, so that's better. And I'm making better contact.

"I've cut down my strikeouts from one every three at-bats to one every 4.5 -- and that will only get better as I get more experience," Martinez said.

He struck out 110 times last year, while drawing 37 walks. "It depends on production," Oates said of the high strikeout ratio. "It takes a lot of production to cover more than 100 strikeouts. Most power hitters are going to strike out, but who cares if you drive in 100 runs?"

Martinez realizes that 216 at-bats in the big leagues is not enough to draw a conclusion. "The name of this game is adjusting and readjusting," he said. "The pitchers didn't know me when I came up, and I think they started to get a feel for me later.

"They're going to do some things differently with me -- and I'm going to have to adjust with them."

Until he proves he can do that, Martinez will remain on trial. But he no longer has to do a selling job on Oates.

"So far, he's shown me he can play up here," said Oates. "But, let's wait and see what adjustments the pitchers make, and what he does. Let's not make a Babe Ruth out of him, and let's not call him a three-month phenom.

Martinez plans to use the same approach as last year. The .332 average at Rochester was easily the best of his career -- and his .269 mark with the Orioles was six points higher than his career minor-league average.

"I'm going to try not to think about numbers too much," said Martinez. "Why get in trouble by putting too much pressure on yourself?

"I didn't change anything last year, when I came up, I went about it the same way I did at Rochester. I've got to concentrate on hitting line drives and the home runs will come."

Based on last year, it would appear that Martinez would have no problem squeezing into the Orioles' outfield picture. But that picture is fuzzy at best, with centerfielder Mike Devereaux the only fixture.

Oates is committed to giving Brady Anderson first shot at the winning the leadoff spot in the batting order. If he succeeds, that leaves Martinez and Joe Orsulak, also a left-handed hitter, to compete for the rightfield job.

Then, there's the question of playing time for David Segui and Dwight Evans, and the uncertainty over whether or not Luis Mercedes can force his way onto the team.

For the moment, Martinez ranks as the incumbent in rightfield, where his strong and accurate throwing arm make him better than adequate. But that hardly means he's assured of a starting job, or even a roster spot.

By virtue of what he did last year, Martinez is guaranteed the opportunity to keep his job. He also knows that's the only guarantee he's got.

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