Oates gets first sneak peek today

March 02, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- Manager Johnny Oates is itching to get started, and why not? He has the best collection of Orioles players this side of the 1983 World Series. He has no serious concerns. He has only to put them on the field and prepare for the best.

That's why he is even looking forward to the pair of intrasquad games today and tomorrow at Twin Lakes Park. The competition may be simulated, but it represents the first adrenalin surge of what is expected to be an exciting season.

"I'm looking forward to doing something other than working on fundamentals and watching the pitchers throw," said Oates, who has run a tight camp the first two weeks.

The intrasquad games are intended largely as a warm-up for the beginning of the exhibition season Friday, but they also will afford a first glimpse of the new upgraded lineup that the Orioles hope will carry them to the playoffs this season.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro and third baseman Chris Sabo will take the field with Cal Ripken and Mark McLemore in an infield configuration that is dramatically different from last year's model.

Mike Devereaux will step gingerly into right field as part of a realigned outfield.

The Orioles have only a month to form the team chemistry necessary to contend for a division title, but Oates seems confident the talent will only add to the positive atmosphere that has developed in the clubhouse the past two seasons.

"I've been very pleased with what I've seen," he said. "This is by far the best talent we've had in camp since I've been here."

The difference in the starting lineup is apparent. Palmeiro is coming off an MVP-caliber year and Sabo is a proven run producer. Even second baseman McLemore is a newcomer in a sense. He has moved in from the outfield to add even more offensive punch to the infield.

Oates is particularly pleased with the club's improved bench strength. The Orioles were so thin last year that they were forced to keep several inexperienced minor-league players on the big-league roster for extended periods. That probably won't be necessary this year.

"On paper, we have much more veteran talent," Oates said. "I'm not saying anything negative about the young players we had here, but last year we had [Sherman] Obando, who hadn't

played higher than Double-A, and Damon Buford, who should have been playing regularly at Rochester. This year, we've got guys like Lonnie Smith and Rene Gonzales. There's just no comparison."

The proof: The second-string infield alignment -- David Segui, Tim Hulett, Gonzales and Leo Gomez -- includes three players who were in the everyday lineup last year.

The club also is very deep in the bullpen, where the acquisition of free agent Mark Eichhorn may force a difficult decision involving one of the returning setup men.

That may not present pleasant prospects for Todd Frohwirth and Mark Williamson, but it is the kind of thing that puts a manager's mind at ease.

No one wants to think about the possibility of a spring injury, but the Orioles are in a position to absorb a significant loss in the bullpen without seriously damaging their ability to compete in the tough American League East.

They are not so fortunate at the front end of the pitching staff, wherethere is little experience to back up the five pitchers who figure to be in the starting rotation. Oates is comfortable going into the season with the five major-league starters in camp, but he knows that few teams get through a season with their original rotation intact.

If he has to reach down into the minor leagues, he only can hope that promising rookies Mike Oquist and John O'Donoghue are ready for prime time.

"That's something that you just don't know," Oates said.

That's something that the club will try to find out over the next four or five weeks, as Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman sort through a crowded roster.

It might seem like the exhibition season lasts a long time, but it is barely sufficient to prepare and audition a pitching staff. Oates hopes to get enough innings for each of his major-league starters, while establishing a routine for the bullpen.

"The important thing is innings for the starters," he said. "Relievers don't need innings. They need appearances. We want to make sure that when we go north, at least four starters have 25-30 innings. It isn't easy [to get everyone enough work]. You play 30 spring training games and the four starters take up nearly half the innings."

That's why even the intrasquad games are important.

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