Oates' center-field debate would be better left alone

February 26, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The first coaches started arriving at 7 a.m. The meeting lasted 90 minutes. Only one subject was covered -- Brady Anderson vs. Mike Devereaux.

Suddenly, the Great Center Field Debate is raging.

It was the second straight day manager Johnny Oates met with his staff to discuss the topic exclusively -- Wednesday's meeting lasted an hour.

Oates also spoke to Devereaux a second time yesterday and plans to talk again with Anderson. A rather hectic pace, considering that he appeared to settle the issue three days ago.

"I just want to make sure we do this thing right," Oates said. "I've probably got those two guys so confused, if you asked them, they wouldn't know what to answer."

Actually, the one who appears most confused right now is Oates. He's being conscientious, soliciting opinions, mulling options. But if he's not careful, he might create a problem.

It's a quiet, peaceful camp. Why start a controversy where none exists? Oates should stick to his original plan, keep Devereaux in center and end this nonsense before it goes any further.

But, by his own admission, the manager is backtracking on the remarks he made Wednesday, when he virtually ruled out the possibility of Devereaux and Anderson changing places in the outfield.

On that day, the chances of Devereaux staying in center probably were 90-10. By Thursday, Oates said they had dropped to 70-30. And yesterday, he conceded they were less than that.

Whoa there, Johnny.

"I'm going to do my darnedest to decide in the next couple of days," Oates said. "They probably don't know if they're coming or going. We've got to get them unconfused."

Oates' deadline is Friday, the date of the Orioles' first exhibition. It would be demeaning to both players to force them to compete this spring, with the loser being forced to rush into left field.

It's not missile deployment, for heaven's sake, it's an outfield alignment. Yes, the decision is more complex than it appears, but Oates is giving it far too much deliberation.

First, he talked to Devereaux and said he would maintain the status quo. Then, he talked to Anderson and started to reconsider the issue.

Oates covered himself, warning, "nothing is written in cement." But what happens now if he moves Anderson to center after telling Devereaux nothing would change?

Devereaux might think Anderson talked Oates out of it, creating a potentially divisive conflict -- not just between Devereaux and Oates, but also between Devereaux and Anderson.

The two players are good friends and professional enough to accept Oates' call, so it's doubtful there'd be a rift. But, major-league egos being what they are, you never know.

On one hand, Anderson is the one with the better arm, the one with the three-year contract, the one considered by most in the organization to be the superior center fielder.

On the other hand, Anderson is the best left fielder in the American League, and if the Orioles try to upgrade with him in center, it would be offset by the drop-off with Devereaux in left.

Generally, a team puts its best outfielder in center, but at Camden Yards, the left fielder covers nearly as much ground. With Anderson, the Orioles increase their home-field advantage.

Devereaux might get to as many balls down the left-field line, but the hits would amount to automatic doubles, because his arm isn't strong enough to throw runners out.

As Oates said Wednesday: "If you really got down to it, Brady could play center field as good as Devo, but I don't think Mike could play left field as good as Brady."

That's it, the only explanation necessary. Anderson might not like it, but Devereaux likely will depart as a free agent next winter, creating an opening in center.

Indeed, Anderson might win a Gold Glove in left -- something he probably couldn't do in center, where he'd be overshadowed by Devon White and Ken Griffey Jr.

Besides, when did Devereaux become such a terrible outfielder? His defense deteriorated last season, but he had an injured left (non-throwing) shoulder and sore right heel.

Two years ago, he was a human highlight film, making diving catches, leaping over the center-field wall to rob Joe Carter. It's not as if he suddenly turned into Jeff Stone.

"Why fix it if it's not broken?" Oates asked Wednesday. "I've slept on it and tried to convince myself a change would be better. And I haven't been able to convince myself of that.

"I'm very happy with the way they've played the last two years. I can't foresee any combination being as effective as that combination covering two-thirds of the outfield."

You said it, Johnny.

Now stand by it.

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