Hammonds isn't Mr. Right just yet

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 17, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

So now the Orioles are talking about Jeffrey Hammonds skipping Triple-A. Evidently, they want him in their outfield as soon as possible, but Luis Mercedes, Chito Martinez and the rest of the dead-end kids in right aren't going anywhere yet.

It's doubtful Hammonds will be with the Orioles by June, or even the All-Star break. Yes, Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura jumped directly from Double-A to the Chicago White Sox, but only after each laid a foundation of more than 450 minor-league at-bats.

Hammonds might require less time because of the experience he gained last summer with the U.S. Olympic team, but there's no way he should come more quickly than Thomas, a player whose three-year statistical profile puts him in the company of Ted Williams.

Thomas followed roughly the same timetable as Hammonds, playing at Single-A rather than the Olympics after getting drafted in 1989. He started the next season at Double-A, but didn't make his major-league debut until Aug. 2.

Ventura was an '88 Olympian, and like Hammonds, began his career at Double-A. The White Sox promoted him in September and named him their third baseman the following season. Even then, it might have been too soon -- Ventura went through an 0-for-41 slump as a rookie.

If Hammonds is so good that he can come more quickly than Thomas and Ventura, then the Orioles might as well call him a future Hall of Famer. Instead, the club will play it safe, particularly after blowing it with Ben McDonald.

That leaves the Orioles with Martinez, Mercedes and Sherman Obando, whom no one will confuse with Willie, Mickey and The Duke. As one club official said, "They're all just Band-Aids until Jeffrey gets here." If only the ball stuck so well in their gloves.

Martinez, the supposed leader of this pack, is off to a rousing 0-for-13 start. It's not fair to judge him at this point, but it spoke volumes last night when Oates chose him to replace the injured Harold Baines, but didn't put him in right field.

Martinez was the DH while Mark McLemore played right -- and went 2-for-3 with two RBI in the first outfield start of his 12-year professional career. Besides, if Martinez was the answer, the Orioles never would have traded for the left-handed-hitting Mark Leonard with two weeks left in spring training.

Mercedes is another story. The Orioles now intend to give him a serious look, which is mighty nice of them, considering that he's a .317 lifetime hitter in the minors. Never mind that they spent the entire spring trying to trade him, receiving offers that can best be described as comical.

According to club sources, seven teams showed interest in Mercedes -- San Diego, Florida, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City and St. Louis. At one point, the Orioles apparently would have accepted a Single-A prospect in return, but no team would meet even that price.

Pittsburgh made a typical offer -- Jeff Richardson, a 27-year-old infielder with 59 games of major-league experience. The Orioles had no use for another Steve Scarsone, and the Pirates wound up trading him to Boston for pitcher Daryl Irvine.

The kicker, of course, is that Mercedes wound up as the Orioles' Opening Day right fielder. He's 4-for-14 (.286) with two doubles, and has yet to commit a major blunder. Oates exonerated him for getting picked off first Sunday. The misplay occurred because Seattle pitched out on a hit-and-run.

So, what will become of Mercedes? The logical solution is still a trade, but club president Larry Lucchino said, "No one has used the word 'showcase' regarding Mercedes except talk-show hosts. I have not heard it at one internal Orioles meeting."

Oates is using Mercedes against most left-handers, giving the rest of the starts to Obando, a raw talent making the jump from Double-A. After this weekend, the Orioles will have faced lefties in eight of their first 10 games, but that's an aberration. In such a limited role, Mercedes will get 200 at-bats, tops.

That's not the same chance the Orioles gave Brady Anderson last season, but Mercedes has the backing of Lucchino, assistant general manager Frank Robinson and even Oates. Lucchino, for one, is keenly aware that the Orioles have never had a Dominican player succeed in the majors.

No, Mercedes isn't the beneficiary of a tense political climate in the aftermath of the Fred Uhlman Sr. controversy and Jesse Jackson protest. But, as Lucchino said, "There are certain cultural and linguistic barriers he has had to overcome. In light of that, he deserves a full measure of patience."

That is, until Jeffrey Hammonds is ready.

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