Long shots turn into sure shots But will Mercedes or Obando start?

April 02, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- At the start of spring training, odds were long that the right hand-hitting, right-field duo of Luis Mercedes and Sherman Obando would remain intact when the Orioles headed north.

On Monday, one of them will be the starting right fielder in the season opener against the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards. Manager Johnny Oates indicated he had made his decision, but said he probably wouldn't announce it before Sunday.

If Oates is leaning toward Mercedes to face Texas left-hander Craig Lefferts, as it appeared, Obando gave him reason to reconsider yesterday. The Rule V draftee from the New York Yankees' organization hit a three-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Orioles a 9-7 lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. That it

was negated by a similar shot by the Blue Jays' Turner Ward in the bottom half of the inning didn't dilute the impression made by Obando, who also had a single and drove in four runs.

"More comes into play than one swing," Oates said, when asked if the home run had any bearing on his decision. "But enough swings like that does come into play."

Obando has yet to play a game above Double-A, so he was considered a $50,000 gamble when the Yankees left him unprotected and the Orioles drafted the 23-year old Panamanian. The home run yesterday was the second of the spring for Obando, who is hitting .323 (10-for-31).

"I'm just going to keep working and see what happens," said Obando, 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds. "I'm going to play hard, play the best that I can."

Because Obando had made such a strong impression early in the spring, Mercedes became the subject of trade rumors two weeks ago. He is on the team because the Orioles kept a commitment to him that he would not be sent back to Triple-A Rochester, where he has played the past two years, and because the trade offers from the Florida Marlins and San Diego Padres were not attractive enough.

Asked if he felt good about his situation with the Orioles, Mercedes replied with a question of his own. "I don't know, what is my situation?" he asked.

He admitted that the trade talk, shortly after he had recovered from a slightly sprained ankle, bothered him. "I got my head down a little bit," said Mercedes, "but Johnny [Oates] told me to keep it up and to play hard like I always do."

The possibility of being the Opening Day right fielder for the Orioles "would be very exciting," said Mercedes. "It would be my first time in the lineup on Opening Day in the big leagues."

When it came time for the Orioles to make their final major cut of the spring two days ago, Obando had played his way out of a possible return to the minor leagues. The Orioles would have had to ask waivers on him, and offer him back to the Yankees if he cleared, before they could send him out. The club never seriously considered that possibility -- and neither did Obando.

"I didn't think about it," he said. "I just tried to do the best I could to win a job. I always had faith, and I believe in what I'm doing."

Obando said he was unsure what plans, if any, the Yankees might have had for him had he not been drafted. "I don't know what they were looking for, or how I fit into their organization," he said. "I'm just glad I'm here."

If first impressions are any indications, Obando could be in the big leagues for a long time. Oates has said that Mercedes will play against left-handed pitchers and that he would "pick his spots" with Obando.

"Opening Day might be one of those spots," said Oates, keeping the right-field guessing game alive. But he also acknowledged that the first game might not be the ideal time to break in a rookie who hasn't played higher than Double-A.

But that's as close as he came to saying that Mercedes would be the right fielder on Opening Day.

The Rangers are using left-handers in the first two games because scheduled Opening Day starter Kevin Brown has been scratched because of a rib-cage injury. It's not out of the question that, depending on what happens Monday, both Mercedes and Obando could each get a start in the first two games.

However it works out, the presence of both Mercedes and Obando on the Orioles' 25-man roster ranks as the long shot of spring training. Originally, there was a possibility neither would make it, and as recently as two weeks ago, it didn't appear there would be enough room for both.

But Mercedes and Obando made it back to Baltimore, and the day after tomorrow, one of them will be in right field for the opening game of 1993.

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