Hoiles, Gomez make plunge, but their safety net is gone

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 27, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT MYERS, FLA — FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Time for a worst-case scenario:

What if Leo Gomez and Chris Hoiles don't pan out?

Not likely, but you never know. Gomez, 25, is the Orioles' new third baseman. Hoiles, 27, is the new catcher. Together with Bill Ripken, they comprise the lower third of the club's batting order. It will be helpful if they can hit.

Hoiles continued easing doubts in yesterday's 6-5 loss to Minnesota, hitting his fourth homer and an RBI double to raise his average to .286 and take over the club lead -- non-Cal Ripken division -- with 10 RBIs.

Gomez, however, is batting .200 with no homers and RBIs. He led major-league rookies with 16 homers last season. Hoiles hit 11 of his own. There is no reason to believe either will fail in their first full season. And yet . . .

"I'm assuming this is going to work out," manager John Oates says. "You just never know with young kids. There are some can't-miss people who do miss. And there are some can't-play people who make it."

The scary part is, the Orioles are now dangerously thin at both third base and catcher. It took three trades (Mickey Tettleton, Bob Melvin, Craig Worthington) to reach this point. Now they're one major injury away from starting over.

Tim Hulett, a backup since 1986, is the only alternative to Gomez. Rick Dempsey, a 42-year-old non-roster player, and Jeff Tackett, a career minor leaguer, are the only alternatives to Hoiles.

4 Quick, name the Orioles' Triple-A third baseman.

(Tommy Shields).

Now, name their Triple-A catchers.

(Most likely, Tackett and Mark Parent).

None are hot prospects; Shields is 27, Tackett 26, Parent 30. In fact, no one in the organization even threatens Gomez long-range. Hoiles might eventually be challenged by Double-A catcher Cesar Devares, but that possibility is at least two years away.

Alarming, isn't it?

Yes, but such risks often are necessary to advance developing players. The only questionable trade was Tettleton, and that was partly about money. Gomez and Hoiles had monster seasons at Triple-A in 1990, then showed true promise with the Orioles last year.

Clearly, it's time.

"If you can't play them now, you might as well get rid of them," assistant general manager Doug Melvin says. "I don't have a big concern. They've done everything at Triple-A. Now we have to find out what they can do here."

Hey, the experiment can't work out any worse than the Ken Gerhart-John Shelby fiasco in 1987. Seriously, the Orioles have proven adept at breaking in young players under the Roland Hemond regime. Ben McDonald was the exception, not the rule.

Just turn back the clock to '89, when the Opening Day roster included five position players with less than one year of major-league experience -- Worthington, Brady Anderson, Randy Milligan, Mike Devereaux and Steve Finley.

Worthington showed the most early promise, but ultimately got traded to San Diego. Anderson is now at a similar crossroads, but Milligan emerged as an impact player in '90 and Devereaux and Finley potential stars in '91 -- the latter with Houston after helping the Orioles land Glenn Davis.

Melvin compares Gomez to the Chicago White Sox's Robin Ventura, who went through an 0-for-41 stretch as a rookie in '90, only to explode into a 100-RBI man in '91. He compares Hoiles to St. Louis' Todd Zeile, who followed a similar offensive pattern to Ventura and has since moved to third base.

Interestingly, both Gomez and Hoiles were considered suspect defensive players as minor leaguers, but ranked among the best fielders at their positions last year. They didn't hit too badly either. In fact, they performed remarkably similar to two prominent members of the class of '89.

Devereaux batted .266 that season with eight homers and 46 RBIs. Gomez had comparable rookie statistics (.233, 16, 45) in the same number of at-bats (391). He's more a slugger than Devereaux, but should be capable of raising his average to .265.

For Hoiles, the '89 yardstick is Milligan. Again, the numbers are close (.268-12-45 for Milligan, .253-11-31 for Hoiles in 24 fewer at-bats). Hoiles won't rival Milligan as an on-base machine, but Oates envisions him hitting .260 with 20 homers and 60 RBIs.

To Oates, Hoiles' production isn't as critical as Gomez's -- "A catcher's first priority should be to catch a win," says the manager, a former major-league catcher himself. "Anything he does offensively is gravy." Still, the thought of a No. 8 hitter driving in 60 runs is intriguing.

Will it happen? Who knows? Both Gomez and Hoiles say they're relieved the pressure is off this spring, but Hoiles is hitting, while Gomez is not. The pressure now is of a different type -- not to compete, but produce. Gomez was so down the other day, he required a pep talk from Oates.

Both Gomez and Hoiles are quiet, serious, diligent, the kind of players Oates wants on his team. Their personalities seem geared toward success, and their track records certainly point that way. All that's left now is for them to play.

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