With their limited resources protected, Orioles don't have much to lose in draft

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 08, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Sorry, but there's no sense getting all hot and bothered over whom the Orioles will leave unprotected in the expansion draft. At worst, they will lose their 16th, 21st and 26th best players -- and that's by their own judgment, no one else's.

It would be one thing if their major-league roster was full of All-Stars. It would be another if their farm system was loaded with top prospects. But the club plotted its draft strategy so deviously, neither is the case.

The Orioles will protect every major-leaguer they want, plus minor-league shortstop Manny Alexander and left-hander Brad Pennington. The 15th spot on the list due tomorrow boils down to the usual question of Luis Mercedes vs. the world.

At least two minor-league pitchers -- Triple-A left-hander John O'Donoghue and Double-A right-hander Kip Yaughn -- are under consideration for the final spot, along with Mercedes and first baseman David Segui.

Just flip a coin.

All of the borderline major-leaguers are replaceable, and none of the minor-league pitchers is a top prospect like Arthur Rhodes. Where's the danger? The most a team can lose is three players. When one gets taken, it can protect four more.

The Orioles lost Mercedes, minor-league pitcher Jeff Williams and minor-league outfielder Damon Buford in a recent mock draft conducted by Baseball America. The names probably will change, but that's the type of talent we're talking about.

It's a delicate balance, guarding the future while minding the present. In a sense, though, the Orioles are fortunate. They have so many interchangeable parts at the major-league level, they can use their pullbacks to protect whichever minor-leaguers they choose.

Take Randy Milligan. Segui is a better defensive first baseman, and a switch-hitter who, if given the chance, probably could match Milligan's 53 RBI. The Orioles wouldn't suffer much with Segui at first and Glenn Davis as their DH. Arguably, they might be better.

Take Bill Ripken. He's a gifted second baseman, but a .224 hitter the last two years. Mark McLemore is nearly as strong defensively, not to mention a switch-hitter with speed. Together, the two combined for 63 RBI last season. Individually, neither is especially valuable.

To an expansion team, Milligan is a 30-year-old first baseman who earns $1 million and doesn't hit for power, and Ripken is an injury-prone 27-year-old second baseman who earns $685,000 and doesn't hit at all.

Frankly, the Orioles can leave both exposed the entire draft, and Segui and McLemore, too. The risk is minimal: Even if Milligan got drafted, what are the chances Segui -- another first baseman with limited power -- would be as well?

In the later rounds, the idea should be to protect developing pitchers such as Yaughn, O'Donoghue and Mike Oquist, and promising hitters such as Stanton Cameron and Mel Wearing. All might fizzle as prospects, but then again, one might explode.

It's the same issue with Mercedes, only at a higher level. Club officials tried to trade him at the general managers' meetings last week in Palm Springs, Calif. Now they'll have to make a decision on a player who could be their everyday right fielder next season.

Mercedes, 24, has finished first or second in his last four minor-league batting races, but officials with both the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies no doubt are aware of his stormy history, and that might curb their interest.

The opinion on Mercedes within the Orioles' organization remains split, with some club officials intrigued by his offensive potential, and others wary of his attitude and defense. Whatever, this is a player who could get drafted. He should be one of the 15.

The Orioles can argue that Mercedes soon will be passed by former No. 1 draft picks Mark Smith and Jeffrey Hammonds, neither of whom must be protected. They can even argue that they've got three more gifted outfielders at Single-A (Curtis Goodwin, Clayton Byrne and Alex Ochoa).

Still, this is a team that, coincidentally or not, has parted with Latin players in four straight trades. The loss of Mercedes would continue the pattern, and send a disturbing message to Alexander, a fellow Dominican and the club's shortstop of the future.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe Mercedes will never develop into a quality player. But you read it here first: The Orioles shouldn't get hurt in the expansion draft. If they do, it's their own fault.

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