Martinez-Mercedes is no Sierra club, but it may fit Eli's Orioles

KEN ROSENTHAL

December 20, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Let's forget about Ruben Sierra, OK? On the Good Ship Eli, the idea is to sell, not buy. Sure, the Orioles want Sierra -- if he'd sign one of their precious Triple-A contracts. "Aw, shucks," The Big E would say before unloading the team for some ungodly sum. "What the heck."

The Chito Martinez-Luis Mercedes experiment in right field is rooted in the club's state of paralysis, but it's not as outrageous a proposition as many fans believe. Martinez could provide desperately needed left-handed power, and Mercedes was good enough to be protected in the expansion draft. We're not talking about Jeff Stone and Wade Rowdon.

Then again, we're not talking about Sierra, either. The club's sudden infatuation with Martinez seems especially odd, considering how infrequently he was used last season. Manager Johnny Oates' response is that Joe Orsulak played better. If that's the case, then why didn't the Orioles just re-sign Orsulak?

You know the answer: Orsulak ($1.3 million) earned nearly 10 times more than Martinez ($140,000) last season. In the brave new world of baseball economics, salaries are just as important as statistics. But while it's obvious this is a financial move, it can be justified for baseball reasons as well.

Start with Orsulak. Solid hitter. Steady outfielder. Hustling fool. But if you're the Orioles, do you reinvest millions in a player who has averaged 44 RBI in five seasons with the club? Not if you've got a replacement like Martinez, who two years ago hit 33 homers between Baltimore and Rochester.

Martinez, 27, is 3 1/2 years younger than Orsulak, and Oates believes he can produce 15 to 20 homers and 60 to 65 RBI with regular playing time. Assistant general manager Doug Melvin points to the Martinez projection by stat freaks Bill James and John Dewan in the Stats 1993 Major League Handbook -- 24 homers and 62 RBI in 432 at-bats.

James warns, "We don't really claim to know what anybody is going to do. We're just having fun," but last year they accurately forecast Leo Gomez's first full season. Insane as their undertaking might be -- they're wrong far more often than right -- their analysis of Martinez might not be far off.

"The stats show that when I play every day, I hit," says Martinez, who last season batted .268 with five homers and 25 RBI in 198 at-bats. "Johnny knows that. But last year, he decided to go with Joe, the veteran. Ain't nothing I could have done or said. Joe had a good year."

Orsulak led the club in hitting for the third time in five seasons with a .289 average. Yet, in nearly twice as many at-bats as Martinez, he produced only nine more extra-base hits and 14 more RBI. Granted, he's a better outfielder than both Martinez and Mercedes. But if the principal concern is run production, the Orioles are better off going in another direction.

Again, the question begs asking: Where was Martinez last season? Oates didn't give him consecutive starts until late May, when Orsulak was hitting .216. Martinez hit three homers in four games on the West Coast, but that was his shining moment. Orsulak hit .369 from June 8 to Aug. 11. Only when Orsulak sprained his left thumb did Martinez get another chance.

Oates wanted the more proven left-handed hitter, especially early in the season, when Brady Anderson's turnaround seemed too good to be true. But after seeing Anderson and Mike Devereaux emerge, the Orioles believe they can take a chance in right field --just as world champion Toronto will in left with Derek Bell.

Anderson and Devereaux combined for 187 RBI last season, more than any American League outfield pair (Texas' Juan Gonzalez combined with Sierra and then Jose Canseco for 194). Even if they fail to match that total in '93, the Orioles can expect Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis to make up the difference, not to mention improvement from Gomez and Chris Hoiles and a boost from Harold Reynolds.

In other words, they should be a better offensive club. A switch-hitting slugger like Sierra would make them downright fearsome, but the Mercedes-Martinez combination might be good enough. Oates says he wouldn't trade those two for a marginal free agent like Jim Eisenreich. And Rule V draft pick Sherman Obando? According to Oates, "Some people think he will be the best of the three."

The Orioles still might sign a Tom Brunansky (17 HR, 64 RBI in '92) if they can get him at a bargain rate, but Melvin insists, "We won't be disappointed if we go into the season with Chito and Luis." So, forget about Sierra already. It could be worse, folks. It could be Jeff Stone and Wade Rowdon.

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