MIAMI -- In the upset of the spring, Orioles manager John Oates and his coaches now want to keep Luis Mercedes. The pressure is on general manager Roland Hemond to swing a trade and clear a spot for the rookie outfielder by Opening Day.
It might not happen, but Mercedes already has overcome long odds this spring. He is this year's Leo Gomez, a hitter too gifted to leave off the club. Returning him to Triple-A now would not only be unjust, it would be the wrong move for the team.
Here's your leadoff hitter, or at least one of them. Mercedes, 24, has improved his outfield defense to the point where the Orioles are willing to continue his on-the-job training. Why, people are even starting to think he's a nice guy.
"He's a very pleasant person to be around," Oates says of a player who was suspended twice at Rochester last season -- once for throwing his helmet into an opposing player's face. The manager adds, "He's friendly. He's got a smile on his face."
All together now:
Luis, Luis, ohhhhh nooooo, who's gotta go?
Would you believe Sam Horn?
We know, we know, the Orioles already lack lefthanded power in a new ballpark tailored to such hitters. But let's face it, Randy Milligan is a more useful player than Horn. What's more, he hits righties better than lefties, by nearly 50 points lifetime (.277-.229).
Forget the short rightfield porch at Camden Yards: Milligan should be the full-time DH. Mercedes could then replace Horn and platoon with Brady Anderson in the leadoff spot. That way, Oates can be more comfortable batting Mike Devereaux sixth.
Of course, there's only one problem: Horn is extremely difficult to trade. He hits home runs, but does nothing else. A team would want him only to fill a specific need. Hemond should find out whether such a team exists, and fast.
The Orioles already are set with five outfielders -- Anderson, Devereaux, Joe Orsulak, Chito Martinez and David Segui. A year ago they demoted Segui to make room for Gomez. In theory they could option Segui again, but that makes no sense.
One of Mercedes' appeals is that he enables Oates to play three right-handed-hitting outfielders against lefthanded pitching. Otherwise, Oates must use one of the lefthanded hitters, along with Devereaux and the switch-hitting Segui.
That's workable, but not ideal. Mercedes would increase Oates' options, especially in the leadoff spot. Anderson is suddenly hitting the ball hard, but he's not going to play against lefthanders. Why not platoon him with Mercedes?
"I think Luis can help this club," says hitting coach Greg Biagini, Mercedes' manager at Rochester last season. "I don't know about on an everyday basis, but he could fill a need on this club, most definitely."
Mercedes makes this team. So does catcher Jeff Tackett. So does righthander Jose Mesa. So does infielder Mark McLemore. All four were long shots at the start of the spring. If Hemond wants to revel in their success, he better reward them.
Oates initially believed Mercedes would cost the Orioles as many runs with his glove as he produced with his bat, but that fear is diminishing. Mercedes works daily on his defense with first base coach Davey Lopes. Oates says he is making "great strides."
Lopes says, "I like his makeup. I told him flat out, 'If you want to play in the big leagues, you better learn how to play defense. It's as simple as that. If you don't learn, you won't play, you'll wind up back in the Dominican.' He understands."
Mercedes didn't convert from second base to the outfield until 1990, and at first he only played center. Lopes says he still is learning basic fundamentals, such as turning on your left shoulder for balls hit in that direction, and vice versa.
The Orioles want Mercedes to play left, and his best friend Segui says, "He's already as good as me out there." Lopes helped Pete Incaviglia become a decent leftfielder in Texas. He believes Mercedes is athletic enough to do the same.
"When I was in Texas, every time a flyball went to Incaviglia, we turned our heads away," Lopes recalls. "Pretty soon, Nolan Ryan thought he was our best outfielder. Who's to say with this kid? With enough work, I think he'll get it done."
Gomez refined his defense at this level; why not Mercedes? And as for his temper, why not follow Cleveland's example with Joey Belle? "It's easy to give up on guys like that," Lopes says. "But you've got to give them every opportunity to succeed, and then some."
Biagini says Mercedes' attitude has been "super." Oates claims, "He's never given me any problem." And Lopes adds, "I don't mind a kid throwing a tantrum once in a while. I'm not condoning what he did, but we all flip a little bit in this game."
Yesterday Mercedes went 0-for-3 with two sacrifice flies in the Orioles' 11-7 victory over Toronto. He's batting only .246, but he's showing he can pull the ball instead of just hit to the opposite field. His helmet flies off when he runs the bases. He's exciting to watch.
He makes this team.
The question is how.