CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Orioles headed for home yesterday, secure in the knowledge that virtually everything on the John Oates agenda was accomplished during their six-week stay in the land of sunshine and citrus. But there remains some unfinished business to attend to this weekend.
Three critical decisions must be made before the team opens the regular season Monday, at least a couple of them likely to have a significant effect on the chemistry of the club.
Oates is expected to announce in the next day or so how he intends to handle the leadoff spot, which has been up for grabs since the position players reported to Twin Lakes Park in late February. He probably will announce Sunday who will be the reserve catcher and the second utility infielder.
The leadoff decision shouldn't be difficult to predict, not after Brady Anderson closed the Grapefruit League season with an offensive flourish and finished with a .288 average, a .373 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases. He was the leadoff hitter when Oates put the "A" team on the field for yesterday's 2-1 exhibition loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, and he almost certainly will be at the top of the order when the club faces right-hander Charles Nagy in the season opener on Monday.
The question is whether he will be there on an everyday basis, or share the leadoff role with Mike Devereaux or Luis Mercedes or even Randy Milligan. Oates has said he will try to give an answer soon, but he will be hard-pressed to project beyond the first few weeks of the season.
"I'm not going to say we're going to do the same thing all season," Oates said, "but I may say I'll try something for a month or six weeks. I have two or three options. Come Opening Day, I'll be happy with one of them."
The other two choices are less clear-cut. It is roster crunch time, and a couple of players are going to go away mad. The question is whether it will be Jeff Tackett or Rick Dempsey, and whether it will be Mark McLemore or Juan Bell. Oates isn't ready to say, perhaps because both are organizational decisions that may not be made entirely on the basis of exhibition performance.
Tackett has had an excellent spring at the plate, batting .438 in a role much like the one he would play if he sticks with the club. Dempsey has hit .143 in 21 exhibition at-bats, but his value to the team transcends his ability to swing the bat. He is one of the most popular players in Orioles history, a factor the club cannot be expected to ignore.
The Orioles can send Tackett back to the minor leagues, but he already has spent his share of time at the Triple-A level. He showed late last season that he could handle the backup role, and seems to have earned a place on the club.
The utility situation is just as complicated. Oates has said from the beginning that he will take two of the three candidates, but the job security of veteran Tim Hulett never appeared to be in question. The choice has always come down to McLemore and Bell, both of whom have important considerations working in their favor.
McLemore adjusted well to the utility role that Oates outlined for him at the beginning of spring training. He had the highest batting average (.393) of any Orioles player with at least 20 at-bats and showed he could play both second base and third. He also showed he could pinch hit, something that was a problem for Bell last season.
But the club has been reluctant to give up on Bell, who came to the Orioles in the Eddie Murray trade after the 1988 season. He stayed at the major-league level all year in 1991 because he was out of minor-league options and cannot be sent down this year without clearing waivers.
He has been given every opportunity to perform this spring, getting more at-bats (49) than some of the everyday players. He batted .224, which is an improvement over the .167 average he has spread over parts of three seasons at the major-league level, but does not make a compelling case for keeping him this year.
There are two extra pitchers still in camp, but right-handers Alan Mills and Jim Lewis are expected to be optioned to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings on Sunday.
The pitching staff has been set for several days, which is another indication of how smoothly Oates' first training camp has run. The only real candidate to falter was left-hander Jim Poole, who will start the season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.
"I think it started with players reporting in good shape and in a good frame of mind, and it has gone from there," Oates said.
The club's major weakness was a starting rotation that blew up early and often last year, but the exhibition season began with a string of solid starts that served notice that the pitching situation had improved considerably during the off-season.
The addition of Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis stabilized a youthful rotation that only figured to get better after a disappointing 1991 season. The results have been more encouraging than even the optimistic Oates could have expected.
"I think we got a lot of work done," he said. "I really believe we are better than we were on the last day of last season. I just hope the good pitching continues. If it does, we'll be all right."