Orioles hope the time is right for Martinez

March 21, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Can Chito Martinez be the Brady Anderson of 1993?

Orioles manager Johnny Oates isn't ready to make such a declaration, but he appears on the verge of making a commitment to Martinez similar to the one he made to Anderson a year ago. This means that Martinez, overlooked in the shuffle last year, has first claim on the right-field job.

That's the scenario despite the fact that the team added another player to the competition yesterday when it acquired Mark Leonard from the San Francisco Giants. Leonard will compete for a regular job, but has less than two weeks to score a decision over Martinez.

Going into spring training, Oates listed an everyday outfielder as one of the Orioles' priorities. He since has softened his stance, while being careful not to make any promises he might not be able to keep.

"I'm very open-minded as to what to do in right field," he said. "I'm not going to make a commitment that I might have to retract shortly after the season starts.

"But, I think we'll be all right with what we have here. We're going to see what Chito can do. We're going to give him a chance to play and just wait and see what happens."

It would appear that right field would be the Orioles' lone platoon position, but Oates said that is not carved in stone. "As far as who we'll use against left-handers, it could be as many as four or five guys, it might be two guys -- or it might just be one."

He did not rule out the possibility that Martinez, who bats left-handed, could play against right-handers and left-handers.

"I've seen him hit left-handers," Oates said. "If he starts hitting against everybody, he could be the one guy."

While realizing he hasn't been assured of anything, Martinez is looking forward to the opportunity.

"I'm very happy with the way things are going," he said. "I'm as confident as I can ever remember. I'm real excited about this year. All I want is a chance to play."

The addition of Leonard to the right-field mix does not bother Martinez. "There's no point in me worrying about that," he said. "It's out of my hands. All I can do is concentrate on doing what I can do."

In 1991, Martinez hit 13 home runs in 67 games for the Orioles after hitting 20 in a half-season for Triple-A Rochester. But that was a different situation. The Orioles were struggling and desperate for some offense. Now, they are preparing for a season in which they fully expect to be contenders.

"In 1991, they wanted to see if I could hit big-league pitching," Martinez said. "I think I proved it to them, and also to myself because, really, I didn't know, either."

Whatever he proved in 1991, however, was relatively meaningless last year, when he had a bad start and played sparingly. He already has as many RBI this spring (eight) as he had at the All-Star break a year ago.

Martinez finished with a .268 average, one point below his mark the previous year, but had only five home runs in 198 at-bats compared with 13 in 216 at-bats the year before. While the Orioles tried to find playing time for Joe Orsulak, David Segui, Sam Horn and Randy Milligan, Martinez became the odd man out.

He has not been told by Oates that the right-field job is his, but Martinez can sense that at the very least it is his to lose.

"All he [Oates] wants me to do is to relax and have fun and not worry about certain things that may arise," Martinez said.

"Right now I don't have any doubt about my ability. When I go to the plate, I'm expecting to get a hit, not hoping. And if I don't, I expect to get one the next time."

If renewed confidence pays off for Martinez, nobody will be happier than Oates. But, just in case, he has some alternatives.

The manager is careful to mention the names of all the contenders still in camp -- Sherman Obando, Jack Voigt, Luis Mercedes (who may be on the verge of being traded) and even Damon Buford, ticketed to play for Rochester. Jeffrey Hammonds, last year's No. 1 draft choice, is still in camp, but an organizational decision will have him starting the season with the Double-A Bowie Baysox.

If Oates opts for a platoon, Obando figures to be the principal alternate with Martinez, but first baseman Segui and Voigt, if he makes the team, also could figure into the equation.

If all else fails, the ace in the hole is Mark McLemore.

fTC "Who knows?" Oates said earlier in spring training. "He could be the everyday right fielder."

A switch-hitter, McLemore provides speed to a team that has lacked it. And McLemore has impressed Oates enough that the manager has no misgivings about using him in the outfield.

"Based on what I saw last year, when we started having him take fly balls in the outfield, I'm not surprised by what I've seen down here," Oates said.

"He actually throws better from the outfield than he does from the infield, because he uses a completely different motion."

Obando is, pure and simple, a source of power. His reputation says he doesn't have a position, and he has spent most of his time in the minor leagues at first base. But his play thus far indicates he can be adequate in the outfield. And his potential has enthralled the Orioles.

As a Rule V selection, Obando must be kept on the major-league roster or offered back to the Yankees at half the $50,000 draft price -- if he clears waivers, which would be doubtful.

Obando is 23, and the Orioles will find a way to justify his existence on the roster.

At this point, Oates feels he has enough alternatives in right field. He's hoping he needs no more than two, in the likely event he goes with a platoon.

The forgotten man of a year ago, Martinez, has first call on the job.

7+ He, and Oates, hope it's also the last.

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