Line behind Devereaux is long, young, talented

March 02, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- Mark Smith should be ready next season, Alex Ochoa the year after. Curtis Goodwin could be the next Kenny Lofton. Jim Wawruck is a .303 career hitter in the minor leagues. Damon Buford and Sherman Obando, the Orioles already know.

Indeed, the organization is so deep in young outfielders, it could overcome the loss of Mike Devereaux as a free agent after this season, and probably even the loss of Brady Anderson at the end of his three-year contract in 1996.

Devereaux would face stiff competition on the open market, witAndy Van Slyke, Paul O'Neill, Ron Gant, Mike Greenwell and Shane Mack all potential free agents. But that will be his only option if the Orioles decline to offer him salary arbitration.

So much can change quickly, but that's the likely scenario right now. Smith is preparing for his second season at Rochester. Ochoa is right behind him at Double-A. Both play right field, Devereaux's new position. If one fails, there's always the other.

Smith, 23, would get the first crack. He's 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, and scouts compare him to a young Kevin McReynolds.

The question is, will he hit for power? Smith lacks speed. He'll need to develop into a 20-homer man to become a major-league regular.

The Orioles see progress -- the former Southern Cal All-American hit 12 homers at Rochester in only his second full pro season, tripling his total from 1992. He might have batted .300, too, but injured his shoulder and ended the season in a 7-for-66 slump.

Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin points to Bobby Bonilla and Mickey Tettleton as examples of two players who never hit 15 homers in a minor-league season, but emerged as big-time sluggers. Smith, the ninth pick in the 1991 draft, could follow the same pattern.

"He knows how to hit," Rochester manager Bob Miscik said"He's got a naturally sound approach. He covers the entire plate, uses the whole field, hits off-speed pitches. It's just a matter of time, I think, before he turns into a pretty dangerous hitter."

"He's definitely a lot different than in '92," said Orioles hitting coach Greg Biagini, referring to Smith's first major-league camp. "He's using his legs more. He's turning on the ball. When he swings, he's letting it go, hitting it hard."

Seven position players from the first round of the '91 draft already have played in the majors, including David McCarty (Minnesota), Manny Ramirez (Cleveland) and Cliff Floyd (Montreal). Jeffrey Hammonds, the Orioles' first-round choice in '92, also beat Smith to the majors. Of course, he's not a bad young outfielder himself.

But now Smith also is getting squeezed from below. Ochoa, 21, is two years away, but he's probably a better all-around prospect -- Baseball America rated him No. 2 in the organization behind Hammonds. Goodwin was No. 7 on that list, Smith No. 8. All three arrived in the Orioles' spectacular '91 draft.

Double-A Bowie manager Pete Mackanin views Ochoa as a potential 20-20 man (20 home runs, 20 stolen bases). But Ochoa's most enviable tool is his throwing arm. Many scouts believe it's the best in the minors.

Mackanin managed Ochoa at Single-A Frederick last seasonand he would notice opponents lingering as the Keys took infield practice. "The whole team would stand and watch Alex," Mackanin said. "He'd make a throw and you'd hear their bench go, "Whooaa!' "

Ochoa smiled at the recollection, saying, "It was kind of cool to show it off." The son of Cuban immigrants, he was a third-round pick out of Miami Lakes (Fla.) High. He describes his arm as "something God gave me." Mackanin describes it as something more.

"Three times, he picked up balls down the right-field line thawere doubles and potential triples, 325-330 feet away," Mackanin said. "Three times, he fired a strike to third base in the air.

"The only other guy I've seen do that in an actual game is EllisValentine. That's when you get the 'oohs' and 'aahs.' One of the guys was out, the other two were safe. But he made a perfect throw each time."

The best thing is, he's a dynamic offensive player, too. Ochoa batted second at Kane County in '92, but dropped to the third spot in Frederick and drove in 90 runs. Oh yes, he also can steal a base -- 34 last season, second in the Carolina League to Goodwin's 61.

Goodwin, 21, isn't in major-league camp -- he's still young enough that the Orioles didn't need to protect him on their 40-man roster. But he made dramatic offensive improvement last season, and in a separate Baseball America survey, was named the Carolina League's top prospect.

Goodwin and Ochoa will be reunited at Bowie, and they could be joined by Wawruck, who hit .297 last season at Double-A but might not get a promotion. Smith, Buford and Obando could form the Triple-A outfield. That would force Wawruck back to Bowie.

Put it all together, and Devereaux's future with the Orioles looks bleak. Owner Peter Angelos covets big-name veterans, but eventually he'll need young players to help balance the payroll. Mark Smith next season, Alex Ochoa the year after. When it comes to outfielders, the Orioles are loaded.

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