Fernandez return leaves two in balance

INSIDE PITCH

April 16, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Tom Keegan contributed to this article.

With Sid Fernandez scheduled to join the active roster tomorrow, the Orioles face a decision that affects the future of two other players.

Do they continue to wait for a true value offer for forgotten third baseman Leo Gomez, or has the time come to take the best deal available?

Trading Gomez at this point would appear to be the simplest way to clear a spot on the roster for Fernandez.

The other option is exactly that -- an option of Damon Buford to Triple-A Rochester. Buford could play regularly in the big leagues now-- the New York Mets would take him in a heartbeat, installing him in center field and making him their leadoff hitter -- but he doesn't figure to get much playing time with the Orioles.

Buford realizes his status is in jeopardy, but he knows a demotion to Rochester might not be all bad.

"I see both sides more now than I did in spring training," Buford said. "In spring training, I was playing every day and having a lot of fun."

Buford still is having fun, but he also realizes the value of playing over sitting.

"The big leagues are great," he said. "But now I can see the other side. It's been two weeks of sitting. I want to start playing."

Going into last night's opener of a three-game series against the Texas Rangers at The Ballpark in Arlington, Buford had been used once inthe Orioles' first nine games. He pinch-ran and scored a run in his only appearance.

Some in the organization consider Buford the best defensive outfielder on the club. He also knows how to use his speed on the bases, averaging 35 stolen bases per season in his four-year pro career.

Like Gomez, Buford has been almost invisible this season, but he does figure in the club's long-range plans. He is the insurance policy in case center fielder Mike Devereaux leaves as a free agent after the season.

Buford is a promising young outfielder, but at his age (he'll be 24 in June) he could be considered too promising to sit most of the year. He has played 72 games at the Triple-A level, and a return to Rochester, where he hit .284 in 27 games a year ago, wouldn't figure to stifle his progress as much as a year of inactivity in the big leagues would.

However, Buford still has more value to the Orioles than Gomez. Manager Johnny Oates likes the flexibility provided by Buford's speed and defense, and he's a much better situational player than Gomez.

Ultimately the Orioles' decision could hinge on what kind of offers they get for Gomez. The club doesn't want to give him away, but the Orioles also have to consider what is best for the player.

To this point, Gomez has been a loyal soldier, but at 27 he can't afford as much bench time as Buford. He needs to get on with his career. He undoubtedly hopes the next stage begins tomorrow.

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