Lefty-hitting Smith right move for O's

June 15, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

There are the trades that the Orioles could make, such as the ones for pitchers Andy Benes or Pete Harnisch, which pop up occasionally in the baseball gossip columns. Big trades. Headliners.

Then there are the trades that the Orioles must make, such as the one for outfielder Dwight Smith, announced yesterday.

Smith, a 30-year-old who has never played an entire season as an everyday player, certainly won't have the impact that another starting pitcher would. But without him, manager Johnny Oates had no left-handed bat to use for pinch hitting late in a game. It was an "evident" problem, said general manager Roland Hemond, and it drove the Orioles to make the deal.

It looks like a safe deal, one with little downside potential. The TC Angels will get one of three prospects the Orioles can live without. The Orioles get a career .283 hitter who can play three outfield positions, helping their limited bench. It's not a big move, but a good move. Smith hit .300 last season and seems to be developing a power stroke, with 16 homers in his past 432 at-bats. He can help.

How much can he help? Who knows? But as the presence of Leo Gomez at third base and Chris Sabo in the outfield point out, things often turn out differently than planned. Along those lines, the trade for Smith easily could take on a larger importance as the season progresses. (If it progresses, labor talks willing.)

Before last night's game, Mike Devereaux was hitting .212 with no homers and eight RBIs in his last 30 games. He has sunk to the bottom of Oates' order, showing no sustained bang in his bat. That Oates has stayed loyal to him is testimony to the 182 RBIs he delivered in the last two seasons, but after a while loyalty crosses the line into foolishness.

These are the big leagues. If you can't hit better than .212, someone else can.

Whether Oates has reached such a point with Devereaux is debatable, as these matters often are. In his first at-bat last night, Devereaux drove in the Orioles' first run with a hard-hit ball that Yankees shortstop Mike Gallego couldn't field. In his second at-bat, he crushed a home run to center field. Who can say that he isn't about to take off?

Yet, Oates all but admitted before the game last night that Smith probably would take at-bats from Devereaux, who has missed few games when not injured since becoming a starter in 1991.

"It certainly is interesting," Oates said, "that if we're facing a tough right-hander, you can put a left-hander like that in there and give Devo a day off."

For Oates, this amounted to a concession that Devereaux's name no longer was written in ink in the lineup. Not that that should be any great shock.

Don't look for Smith to come in and take away Devereaux's job, though. You don't get that kind of player in exchange for someone named Feliciano Mercedes or Bo Ortiz. Smith hasn't had more than 35 RBIs in a season since 1989. His defense is average.

It is difficult to imagine the defense-minded Orioles trying to win a division with Smith and Sabo in the outfield.

Jeffrey Hammonds' return, if there is one this season, is the move more likely to put a serious squeeze on Devereaux's playing time. Smith, after all, is being brought here primarily to give Oates a left-handed option off the bench.

The Orioles tried to fill the job by signing backup catcher Rich Gedman in the off-season, but he was no longer a major-leaguer and retired when the Orioles released him. Paul Carey's broken wrist, suffered in March, took away another option.

Once the season began, the club considered larger moves such as trading for the Expos' Larry Walker or the Phillies' Jim Eisenreich, but the price was too high, particularly for Walker. Giving up tons of money and better prospects didn't make sense in a year that might end with a strike. Plus, trading for a starter would give the Orioles five starters (including Sabo and Hammonds) for three positions, a pointless glut.

Better to save the prospects for a trade for a pitcher, anyway.

Of all the left-handed hitters the club considered, Smith ranked somewhere in the middle. Below Walker and Eisenreich, above Milt Thompson and Dave Martinez. It isn't the cheapest solution, the one the club surely would have employed when Eli Jacobs was the owner and not a penny wasn't pinched. This is better than that. This isn't Keith Moreland at the end.

When Devereaux hit his first home run in a month last night, it was impossible not to think that he was all too aware of the circumstances, and determined to respond. That's what the Orioles really need. If the perception of competition succeeds in awakening Devereaux's bat, this deal is a winner regardless of how Smith hits.

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