O's outfield shift: Hammonds, Anderson, Devo Manager does about-face after staff consensus

February 27, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Manager Johnny Oates might have seemed indecisive about the Orioles outfield situation four days ago, but he settled the issue yesterday with a sweeping realignment that left no outfield position untouched.

Brady Anderson will be the starting center fielder this year, Mike Devereaux will move to right and rookie Jeffrey Hammonds will ** play regularly in left field if he is healthy and productive this spring. It isn't quite what Oates was hinting at when he first talked about the possibility of a change, but he feels it makes perfect sense.

"I've got 200 years of baseball experience [on the coaching staff] and they thought this was the best thing for the team," Oates said. "It was almost unanimous."

There was at least one dissenting voice, of course. Devereaux has been resistant to the concept of giving up center field since it first became the subject of speculation last year. He said he still believes that he is the best center fielder on the club, and made that clear to Oates during a series of discussions over the past few days, but accepted the change without making any serious waves.

"I kind of assumed this was going to happen before I got here, from what I had been reading in the papers," Devereaux said. "I didn't try to talk him out of it. If he feels that this is best, what can I say? I look at it as a demotion, but I had a feeling that it was going to happen.

"There's no doubt that I'd rather play center field. I've played there and it's an easier position to play for me. But I'm not saying that I can't make the adjustment, because I can."

The decision appeared to be driven by the club's desire to move Anderson to center field. He is considered the Orioles' best defensive outfielder and he had made it known that he would like to move over from left. He also is signed for the next three seasons, while Devereaux appears to be headed for free agency next winter.

But Oates cast it as an all-encompassing decision that would benefit the club because it would move Anderson and Hammonds into more comfortable positions while not putting Devereaux at a serious disadvantage.

"Hammonds, if he's healthy, will be playing a position that he's comfortable with," Oates said. "Brady will be playing the position he's most comfortable with. Devo, he's going to a position that he will become comfortable with. He played right field in the minor leagues and he played right field for us when we got him."

If Devereaux doesn't like it, he can move on after this year a more versatile player than he would otherwise have been.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this makes us a better ballclub," Oates said, "and I honestly believe that it won't hurt Mike Devereaux. I think he looks at it as a demotion. It's a promotion. He's doubled his bargaining power. That's how I look at it.

"After he puts together the monster year he's going to have -- and he's going to have a monster year -- if there are three teams looking for a center fielder and four teams looking for a right fielder, I've doubled the number of teams interested in him."

The move runs against baseball logic, because a shoulder injury last year left Devereaux with the weakest arm of the club's three top outfielders. Most teams put their strongest arm in right field, but Oates said that the configuration of Camden Yards makes that a less important consideration.

"I'm not really concerned with the arm," he said. "I put Mark McLemore in right field and I don't think anybody was too excited about his arm going into the season. Nowadays, there are a lot of ballparks where it's just as easy to throw from right field as it is from left.

"He'd rather play center field, but who knows what right field can do for him? Another manager a long time ago moved a guy [Cal Ripken] from third base to shortstop and it turned out OK for him. We made the move last year with McLemore and it turned out OK."

The decision came four days after Oates first hinted that a change was imminent. He first appeared to be leaning toward moving Devereaux to left, then backtracked and announced that no change would be made. That's why yesterday's announcement came as such a surprise.

"I believe that when I make moves, I don't just make them to make them," Oates said. "I believe that it's very important that you listen to your people. When about 11 of 12 say one thing, am I going to be stubborn and stay with what I have been doing?"

Obviously not. Oates stressed that the decision was made as much to benefit Hammonds as anyone else in the outfield. It had been generally assumed that he would start in right field if he won a place in the starting lineup, but Orioles minor-league coach Reid Nichols and Rochester manager Bob Miscik both told Oates that Hammonds would be more comfortable in left field.

"It's not in cement that Hammonds is the left fielder," Oates said, "but he's the leading candidate. All the reports on Jeff say that he's better in left field than in right. I read somewhere that he said he wasn't comfortable in right field. He told someone during infield practice last year -- I think it was in California -- that the ball was [snaking] and he hoped no one hit the ball to him. That's a tough way to go into a game, hoping no one hits you the ball."

Anderson cannot be unhappy with the opportunity to move into a position that he was made to play, but he chose his words carefully. He obviously wanted to be the center fielder, but isn't celebrating the fact that the position came at the expense of one of his best friends on the team.

"It's just the way things are," Anderson said. "We're teammates and good friends and we'll both do what's best for the team. Wherever they want me to play, I would just keep my mouth shut and play and Devo would do the same thing."

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