Orioles shouldn't shortchange selves

December 21, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Under different circumstances, this would be a no-brainer: Make Manny Alexander your shortstop, move Cal Ripken to third base. "If we were a second-division ballclub, yeah," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "But not if we're trying to win the World Series."

That's the goal under new owner Peter Angelos, so it makes no sense to displace Ripken when he's still one of the top shortstops in the game. Yet, it also makes no sense to trade Alexander, the club's best middle-infield prospect in a decade.

Ripken turns 34 in August. The Orioles traded two major-league shortstops -- Juan Bell and Ricky Gutierrez -- to make room for Alexander. Their younger prospects are at least three years away; they couldn't trade Alexander without getting a shortstop in return.

Why, then, is there such temptation to part with Alexander? Because he's the centerpiece of almost every trade discussion, be it for a starting pitcher or Bobby Bonilla. And, because Ripken figures to remain at short while chasing Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record into 1995.

Some club officials believe Ripken wants to set the record at short, the position he has played since June 30, 1982. But Oates said: "He has never indicated that to me, or even hinted to me, that he'd like to stay at shortstop until the streak was over."

Ripken probably would prefer to stay at short, but who cares where he breaks the record? He already has played 1,870 consecutive games at short, more than anyone else has ever played at a single position. Gehrig's longest streak at first base was 885 games.

It's a non-issue -- remember, the first 27 games of Ripken's streak were at third base. He moved back to third in the spring of '89, enabling the club to try out Bell. "If moving to third base would make us a better ballclub, he'd do it," Oates said.

Moving Ripken to third won't make the Orioles better -- yet. Yes, his range is starting to decline, and club officials are concerned by his increasing number of nagging injuries. But Ripken still is amazingly reliable in the field, and no other shortstop consistently drives in 90 runs.

It would be self-defeating for a contending team to pair a 22-year-old rookie shortstop (Alexander) with a second baseman who is only average defensively (Mark McLemore). But again, it would be even more self-defeating to give up on a player who is so highly regarded by other teams.

The solution isn't to trade Alexander, who displays stunning range and a powerful arm and who cut his errors from 37 to 18 last season. The solution is to make him the Opening Day shortstop in 1995, with free agent Chris Sabo providing a one-year bridge at third base.

The Orioles probably can't obtain a quality starting pitcher without trading Alexander, but they could survive with a rotation of Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald, Sid Fernandez, Arthur Rhodes and Jamie Moyer. Indeed, Rhodes is just like Alexander -- a prospect too promising to trade.

Angelos understands the value of free agency, but he should be equally committed to player development. Teams such as Toronto and Atlanta don't simply spend money; they rely on deep farm systems to build contenders year after year.

After Alexander, Rhodes and Brad Pennington, most of the Orioles' top prospects are at the lower levels. Alexander could be the next Ozzie Guillen. Rhodes could be the next Vida Blue. Why gamble everything on one year when it means losing players who could help you for 10?

Alexander spent almost all of last season at Triple-A, batting .244 with six homers, 51 RBIs and 19 stolen bases -- about what the Orioles would expect out of him in Baltimore. Assistant general manager Doug Melvin said he could play in the majors next season. He'd be even better prepared after another season in the minors.

The danger is that Alexander might grow sour if he returns to Rochester, but his hero, fellow Dominican Tony Fernandez, had nearly 1,200 at-bats at Triple-A. Most of the current young shortstops -- Gutierrez, Wilfredo Cordero, Andujar Cedeno -- reached the majors after approximately 600 Triple-A at-bats. Alexander has 495.

The Orioles could always carry Alexander as a utility infielder, but he'd get minimal playing time backing up Ripken and McLemore. Outfielder Damon Buford didn't benefit from spending most of last season as a pinch-runner. Alexander wouldn't either, but his case is more complicated -- he needs the major-league money to help support his family back home.

Whatever, the day Ripken moves from shortstop will be the day his skills are finally appreciated. It probably will take two players to replace him -- the Orioles would need a late-inning replacement so they could pinch-hit for Alexander. The moment seems years away, but it's coming. Better to be ready than not.

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