In Orioles' doubtfield, Hammonds is big catch

July 22, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Jay Buhner an Oriole?

The last thing this team needs is another outfielder, but come November, the idea might not seem so far-fetched.

Come November, Mike Devereaux will be a free agent. And come November, Jeffrey Hammonds might be facing knee surgery.

Brady Anderson is the only outfielder certain to be in the 1995 lineup, and deep as the Orioles are in minor-league prospects, it seems unlikely they'd trot out Anderson, Damon Buford and Sherman Obando on Opening Day.

One young outfielder? Maybe.

Two? Forget it.

Owner Peter Angelos prefers marquee veterans to unproven minor leaguers, and so does manager Johnny Oates.

See, they do agree on something.

So, with Alex Ochoa and Curtis Goodwin at least a year away, the Orioles might need to enter the free-agent market, where Buhner and Paul O'Neill will be the most attractive candidates.

It all depends on Hammonds.

"We don't really know the extent of the knee," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "We've going to have to wait probably until the off-season, let him be re-examined, see what has to be done.

"If he has to have an operation, you look at it from that perspective. Right now, I don't think we can say that we won't be counting on him for next year. . . . We don't know yet. We're just going to have to ride it out."

Hammonds, 23, went 1-for-4 yesterday in the Orioles' 4-3 loss to Oakland after missing two games with swelling in his right knee -- the same knee that landed him on the disabled list for six weeks earlier this season.

The extent of his injury is a matter of debate, but since joining the Orioles in June 1993, Hammonds has appeared in only 81 of 183 games -- and his condition doesn't figure to improve dramatically by the end of the season.

That would again put the Orioles in a difficult spot. Last winter, they considered trading for Bobby Bonilla as Hammonds recovered from a herniated disk in his neck. This winter, they'll face similar uncertainty -- or worse, the possibility of Hammonds undergoing surgery.

Devereaux won't return unless he takes a cut of $2 million or more from his $3.375 million salary. More likely, he'll try to revive his career with another club and maybe become next season's Darrin Jackson.

Lonnie Smith is history, and Dwight Smith and Jack Voigt are best suited for part-time roles. Mark McLemore is an option, but he's better off at second base, and a potential free agent. Besides, how many teams have outfielders with only 19 RBIs?

The Orioles have four legitimate prospects at Triple-A -- Buford, Obando, Mark Smith and Jim Wawruck. None, however, excites them as much as the dynamic duo at Double-A, Ochoa and Goodwin.

Don't look for either to make the jump next season -- the Carlos Delgado-Alex Gonzalez experiment was a failure in Toronto, and the Orioles don't want to rush any more prospects after blowing it with Arthur Rhodes and Brad Pennington.

Buford? Robinson calls him the best defensive center fielder in the organization, and Rochester coach Jim Weaver says he glides to the ball like Devon White. Problem is, Buford will never be a slugger. The Orioles could carry him only if they had another RBI man in the outfield.

Obando? He can be the RBI man, but is limited defensively. So? Obando is batting .334, and leads the International League with a .633 slugging percentage. He could be the next Ken Singleton -- and would make an even better fit if the Orioles don't re-sign Harold Baines.

Smith? The Orioles' No. 1 pick from 1991 is the logical No. 1 candidate to replace Devereaux, but this is his second year at Triple-A, and he's batting only .238 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs -- and 61 strikeouts in 269 at-bats.

Wawruck? A left-handed batter with a lifetime .300 average in the minors, good speed and limited power. The Orioles aren't certain he'll be an everyday player in the major leagues.

It's not a bad group, but there's no player as well-rounded as Ochoa. Heck, even if Hammonds is healthy, the Orioles might pursue a free agent, the better to bridge them to '96, when Ochoa and Goodwin should be ready.

The outcome of the labor negotiations obviously will have a major impact on their off-season decision-making, especially if the owners succeed with their plan to implement a salary cap. But with at least six potential free agents, the Orioles stand to lose more than $10 million in salaries.

That would create room to maneuver, and if draft-pick compensation is abolished, they'd be even more inclined to enter the free-agent market. That way, they couldn't lose another No. 1 pick if they signed, say, Andy Van Slyke.

Buhner, a right-handed hitter with opposite-field power, likely would top the Orioles' list -- club officials have coveted him for years, and they probably couldn't outbid the New York Yankees for the left-handed hitting O'Neill.

Come November, the debate might be as lively as the Will Clark-Rafael Palmeiro debate last winter.

It all depends on Hammonds.

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