Orioles must choose right parts to stay in running order

Ken Rosenthal

March 26, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Orioles' final roster decisions mostly involve spare parts, but it's imperative general manager Roland Hemond and manager John Oates make the right choices. Shocking as it may seem, the club suddenly looks respectable and perhaps even good enough to contend.

Indeed, the cautious approach that frequently governs roster nTC moves would be truly damaging now. Releasing Dwight Evans was a positive step, but the Orioles shouldn't stop there. They don't need to do anything radical. Just a few minor things that make absolute sense.

Eleven shopping days remain until the season opener, and Hemond can start by trading Juan Bell to clear a spot for Mark McLemore, a superior switch-hitting utility infielder. The move won't decide the pennant, but it will signal a commitment to winning rather than a commitment to a sorry trade.

Next, Hemond should deal Mark Williamson, clearing a spot for a second lefthanded reliever. Dennis Rasmussen, a starter his entire career, might not be resilient enough to replace the injured Jim Poole in that role. But Rasmussen, 32, is under Triple-A contract. If he can't hack it, find someone else.

Finally, Hemond should tolerate Oates' plan to use Brady Anderson as his leadoff hitter against righthanded pitching, but not indefinitely. If Anderson doesn't rapidly improve his .219 career average -- and he's batting only .229 this spring -- the club will be obligated to try rookie Luis Mercedes.

The Anderson-Mercedes competition is a myth, for Mercedes doesn't have a chance, just like Jeff Tackett doesn't have a chance against Rick Dempsey in the battle for the No. 2 catcher's job. Both decisions are easily justified -- Dempsey in particular -- but both represent an easy way out.

We'll say it again: Mercedes isn't going away. In fact, club officials are divided almost equally on whether he deserves the leadoff job. Oates tilts the scale toward Anderson, which is his prerogative. But for every club official who distrusts Mercedes, there's another fed up with Anderson.

Mercedes is outhitting Anderson this spring (.277-.229) with a higher on-base percentage (.346-.325), the same number of doubles (three) and one fewer stolen base. Anderson remains a far better defensive player, but that's not the primary qualification to bat leadoff, is it?

It won't hurt Mercedes to start the season at Rochester, where he can refine his outfield defense and try playing two months without getting suspended. The truth is, he still makes people nervous, while the only concern with Anderson is that he can't hit.

So many problems, just to get Mike Devereaux to bat sixth. Yet, troubling as the leadoff question remains, club officials don't consider it pressing just yet. The situation with Bell is clearly more urgent, for it must be resolved before Opening Day.

Bell, as we all know, is out of options, so if the Orioles demote him, they can lose him on a waiver claim. The best solution remains a trade, but at this point, who cares?

McLemore went 2-for-4 with a sacrifice fly yesterday in the Orioles' 12-inning, 1-1 standoff with Boston. He's now batting .454.

That's more than double Bell's .216, albeit in 15 fewer at-bats. Bell, of course, also commits a daily mistake in the field. McLemore, 27, is only 3 1/2 years older. He's smarter, steadier and just as fast. The Orioles can't keep both, for neither is reliable at Tim Hulett's best position, third base.

In the past 16 months, McLemore has been released by Houston and Cleveland, perhaps the two worst teams in baseball. He's still better than Bell. He might even be better than Bill Ripken, but that, of course, is a forbidden topic with big brother Cal unsigned.

The pitching decision is less clear-cut. Jose Mesa figures to be the fifth starter, pushing Storm Davis to be the bullpen and creating a surplus of righthanded relievers. Williamson remains the most obvious candidate to be traded, assuming Rasmussen makes the club.

Oates covets the flexibility offered by two lefthanded relievers -- a necessity now that most starters work only five or six innings. But if Rasmussen can't handle the workload and Hemond can't swing a trade, Mike Flanagan will be the only lefthander on the staff.

It's bad enough the Orioles are preparing to use an all-righthanded rotation in a ballpark tailored to lefthanded power. True, they can simply wait for Poole to return, but why not turn creative? World champion Minnesota just traded for lefthanded starter John Smiley, a 20-game winner.

Aggressive teams are rewarded.

Passive ones get left behind.

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