Trade only a big deal when Gomez is gone

March 28, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- One down, one down to go. The trade of David Segui brought the Orioles an intriguing Triple-A reliever and an infielder with major-league experience. Now general manager Roland Hemond must figure out a way to also purge Leo Gomez, however minimal the return.

Hemond repeated yesterday that he won't release the obsolete third baseman, and said it's "pretty quiet" on the Gomez trade front. But Lay-o must go to give manager Johnny Oates the best possible roster, and infielder Rene Gonzales must start the season at Triple-A Rochester as well.

That way, Oates could keep Rich Gedman as his third catcher and Damon Buford as a pinch runner and backup outfielder. The Orioles would be left with Tim Hulett as their only utility infielder, but Jack Voigt can play first and third base, and Oates isn't going to substitute much in the infield anyway.

Gonzales signed a Triple-A contract expecting to make the club, but yesterday he made his team-high sixth error with two outs in the ninth inning and the Orioles leading St. Louis, 4-1. Two runs scored on his poor throw from shortstop to first, and a routine victory turned into a 4-3 nail-biter.

His defensive slump is odd, considering that Gonzales has made only 37 errors in 600 major-league games, and that he has played the entire spring at shortstop, his natural position. Still, his roster spot would be in jeopardy even if he were playing flawless defense and maintaining his .263 batting average.

Gonzo is gone-zo if the Orioles can't rid themselves of Gomez, and just as vulnerable if they can. Oates doesn't need two utility infielders with Rafael Palmeiro at first, Mark McLemore at second, Cal Ripken at short and Chris Sabo at third. If someone gets injured, a replacement from Rochester could arrive the next day.

The risk is that the Orioles eventually might lose Gonzales, assuming they agreed to release him if he is not in the majors by a certain date. Then again, the newly acquired Kevin Baez could fill a similar role. Baez was mainly a shortstop for the New York Mets, but Hemond said he also can play second base.

The goal should be to give Oates as much flexibility as he needs, and that's what would happen if the Orioles traded Gomez and demoted Gonzales. Third catchers are luxuries, and so are glorified pinch runners. But for Oates' purposes, Gedman and Buford would be more useful than Gomez and Gonzales.

Gedman would be the Orioles' only left-handed pinch-hitter -- he's 3-for-4 in that role this spring. He also would enable Oates to spell Chris Hoiles as a DH. Lonnie Smith figures to be the DH against most left-handers. But on days Harold Baines needs to rest his aching knees, Hoiles could be the DH and Gedman the catcher, with Jeff Tackett still on the bench.

Buford would give Oates the option of running for Baines or his catcher -- or both, with Voigt serving as the other pinch runner. Let's not forget Buford in the outfield, either. Jeffrey Hammonds has never played a full major-league season. Oates can't expect him to start 162 games -- and the same goes for Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux.

If club officials give Oates the team he wants, then it's his obligation to use the players they provided. The past two seasons, Oates sometimes took a pedal-to-the-metal approach with his regulars, playing them to exhaustion. It's time for him to manage with vision, mindful of the future, and of September.

Buford would be better off playing every day in Rochester if he wasn't used effectively, and Gedman would be taking up a spot needed for a pitcher. Indeed, the one who gets less playing time likely would be demoted when Sid Fernandez moves into the rotation and becomes the club's 11th pitcher in mid-April.

The staff is practically set, with Mark Williamson and Brad Pennington the leading candidates for the final two bullpen jobs. Mike Oquist likely would be the first pitcher recalled from Rochester -- he pitched well in five games for the Orioles last season, and now he has worked 11 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings for a 1.84 spring ERA.

The addition of Tom Wegmann from the New York Mets gives the Orioles another right-handed bullpen option at Triple-A. Wegmann, 25, led the Arizona Fall League with 59 strikeouts, going 5-1 with a 2.70 ERA for a team managed by Orioles coach Davey Lopes. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in four minor-league seasons is nearly 4 to 1.

Things are starting to fall into place -- the Orioles got a glowing medical report on Fernandez yesterday, and the Segui trade cleared a valuable roster spot. All Hemond must do now is trade Gomez, and the Orioles can open the season without any qualms. Without any loose ends. Without any dead wood.

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