ST.PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The time couldn't be more right for Brady Anderson. He is doing the right things. The manager is saying the right things. The environment seems perfect for his emergence as the Orioles everyday leadoff hitter.
The question, of course, is whether he will take the job and run with it.
This isn't the first time he has auditioned for the leadoff role, but this might be the first time it is truly within his grasp. He has been at the top of the order in more than half of the club's first 13 exhibition games, and his contribution to the team's solid offensive performance has not been lost on manager John Oates.
"So far this spring, we've scored a lot of runs in the first inning," Oates said. "This [last night's game] is the seventh time that Brady has been in the leadoff spot. We've scored a lot of runs early, and a lot of it has to do with Brady being up there."
Anderson led off with a walk in the first inning of last night's 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, but the coaching staff was still buzzing about his big performance Tuesday against the Montreal Expos. He singled in the first inning. He stole two bases. He scored three runs. He forced a couple of pitchouts that set up Joe Orsulak for a walk and set up Cal Ripken for a two-run double. With four hits, four walks, four steals and four sacrifices in 24 at-bats, he has done everything a leadoff hitter is supposed to do, which is why the manager seems ready to give him the chance of a career.
"If he gets on base, oh boy," Oates said. "I know it's an if. I know he has never done it before. But, maybe this is the year. Maybe our patience will pay off."
The benefits would extend beyond Anderson's immediate contribution, just as his performance in Tuesday's game benefited several other members of the lineup. Center fielder Mike Devereaux would be free to hit deeper in the order and take advantage of his run-production capability. With Devereaux in the sixth spot, the club would offer a more aggressive, opportunistic style of play at both ends of the lineup.
It all comes down to whether Anderson can get on base consistently enough to keep the job. He will enter the 1992 season with a .219 career batting average, but he batted .272 after the All-Star break last year and showed signs that he was finally ready to come into his own at the plate.
"I think this is the year," he said, "because I ended well last year. I just think that I'll score a lot of runs and steal a lot of bases if I get some at-bats."
Anderson, 28, has had to carry the burden of other peoples' expectations with him since he broke into the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1988. He came to the Orioles in the Mike Boddicker deal and has been something of a mystery man ever since.
This isn't the first time he has been mentioned as a leadoff candidate. He was supposed to get every opportunity to win the job last spring, but he never really asserted himself at the plate. He batted just .211 in April and .125 in May before going on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring. He even spent time at Triple-A Rochester, but came back to bat .385 during the final month of the season.
"I've seen him play well and I've seen him play when he didn't play so well," Oates said. "He's playing well now and I have an open mind. He's got some tools. He's done things out there that really excite me. But at this level, he's got to be more consistent."
Oates stops short of saying what it will take for Anderson to win the leadoff job. He indicated yesterday that there is the strong possibility that the leadoff position will evolve into a left-right platoon, with Devereaux leading off against left-handed pitching and Anderson against right-handers, but will not make any predictions at this point.
Devereaux will play full-time regardless. If he shared the leadoff role, he would drop down in the lineup against right-handers. Anderson would have to make a very compelling case for an everyday role, but it is not out of the question.
"If Brady Anderson can hit .280 for us and have an on-base percentage of .370 or .380, he'd probably get about 600 at-bats," Oates said.
The burden of proof, however, would be squarely on Anderson's shoulders. He would have to continue to get on base regularly here in Florida and then get off to a quick start during the regular season.