The O's of Oates served a la Tony

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 24, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Call him Tony Jr. Johnny Oates began emulating Tony La Russa the moment he took over as Orioles manager. First, he set up his bullpen like Oakland's. Now, he wants to do the same thing with his bench.

Actually, the two are related, because the more versatile the Orioles' reserves are, the fewer such players Oates will require. Then, he could carry 11 or even 12 pitchers -- you know, just like Tony.

It won't happen immediately, because Oates won't need more than 10 pitchers until the schedule gets heavier. But that's the idea of making Tim Hulett a catcher and Mark McLemore an outfielder, the manager's two pet projects this spring.

Hulett probably won't ever appear as a catcher -- Oates just wants him available in an emergency, in the unlikely event he runs for Chris Hoiles one night and the backup catcher gets hurt.

McLemore, however, could get significant playing time in the outfield. He's obviously fast enough to cut off line drives in the gap. The question is whether he can catch the ball.

Ideally, Oates wants him to become the Orioles' version of Jerry Browne, a nondescript infielder with Cleveland who last season turned into a six-position wonder with Oakland.

"If Jerry Browne can start an American League playoff game in center field," Oates says, "then Mark can go into a ballgame in July in left."

This isn't Randy Milligan revisited -- McLemore is a better athlete than Milligan, and Oates won't use him every day. But clearly, the Orioles need another fast outfielder, if Oates is to get Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux more rest.

Anderson started 158 games last season, Devereaux 153. Oates now concedes "there's no doubt" he asked them to do too much. Anderson, in particular, started dragging and batted only .202 in September.

But now, with Joe Orsulak gone, Oates will be stuck with a poor defensive outfield if he rests either player. He doesn't mind starting Chito Martinez, Luis Mercedes or David Segui at one position. But two, that would be pushing it.

This is where McLemore comes in. Oates said he wants Anderson and Devereaux to start 150 games. He won't rest them on artificial turf, where their speed is so valuable. But the idea is to give Devereaux a day off at home against a pitcher like Kevin Appier, against whom he's 1-for-19.

Anderson would replace him in center, and McLemore would play the "big field" (left at Camden Yards). Oates even has an alternative to McLemore -- Jack Voigt, who plays all three outfield positions and last season batted .284 with 16 homers and 64 RBI at Triple-A.

McLemore, though, is the first choice, simply because of the versatility he would bring. Again, consider Oakland. La Russa used Randy Ready at five positions last season, Lance Blankenship at four, Willie Wilson at two. The A's overcame several key injuries to win their fourth AL West title in five years.

The thing Oates hates most about facing Oakland is that La Russa manages his bullpen so aggressively, it's difficult to put together a big inning. That's the advantage of keeping a limited number of bench players and 11 or 12 pitchers.

The Orioles are at a point now where an expanded bullpen makes sense. The closer is Gregg Olson, the setup men Todd Frohwirth and Alan Mills, the left-handers probably Brad Pennington and Jim Poole. Oates needs a sixth pitcher to mop up on days when his starter gets knocked out early.

Mills was outstanding in that role last season, but Oates doesn't want to waste him. Likewise, he doesn't want to use Frohwirth in that spot, or a left-hander. "I'm in a bit of a predicament," Oates says. "I've got to have somebody out there who can take that abuse."

In other words, an 11th pitcher. Like La Russa, Oates gives each reliever a specific role. He's still upset about the way he handled the bullpen in the second half of last season, when he stopped using Gregg Olson automatically in save situations.

"Ask Elrod," he says, referring to bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "He'd pick up the phone wondering who I wanted. It should never be that way.

"You know what's embarrassing for me? When I call out there and see a guy hop up who's not supposed to hop up in that situation. That tells me I've deviated from the norm."

Of course, he deviated only because his closer was struggling, a problem La Russa rarely faces. Entering his second full season, Tony Jr. is still learning. But, knowing he chose the right role model, can a Johnny Jr. be far behind?

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