Alexander and mates are coming up short

August 23, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

To this point, the most significant contribution Manny Alexander has made to Orioles history is as an answer to a trivia question: Name the only person other than Cal Ripken to play nine innings at shortstop for the Orioles since June 27, 1982.

Alexander played the final nine innings of the Orioles' season-ending, 4-3, 13-inning victory over the host Cleveland Indians on Oct. 4, 1992.

Alexander the Great?

Two years later, Alexander still has only five major-league at-bats, still has proved he can play only one position well, still has not settled questions about his bat, and still is the best infield prospect in the Orioles' system.

Rich in outfield prospects and deep in pitching possibilities, the Orioles have little to brag about in the infield below the major-league level.

Alexander is out of contract options, which means he either makes the major-league roster next spring or must be placed on waivers. Knowing this, the Orioles decided to prepare him for the only available role, that of a utility infielder.

A native of shortstop-factory San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Alexander was asked by the organization to try a new position. He split most of this season, his second for Triple-A Rochester, between second base and shortstop.

At short, he has been the same player as in years past. He has an arm and range that allow him to make spectacular plays in both directions, but has a tendency to botch routine grounders.

At second, he played like a drummer playing the guitar. The talent was there, but something wasn't quite right.

Alexander, who has returned to full-time shortstop duty, committed 14 errors in 47 games at second base. Not only that, his hitting suffered. He batted .220 with 15 RBIs in 186 at-bats as a second baseman and is hitting .257 with 21 RBIs in 183 at-bats as a shortstop.

"He's a legitimate true shortstop," Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin said. "There's no question he's a major-league shortstop. He has great instincts in the field. His bat is what he needs to work on."

Alexander can throw and run (26 stolen bases in 32 attempts), but he has yet to put it all together.

A recent hot streak at the plate, which coincided with his move back to full-time shortstop duty, has pumped a batting average that was .204 at the All-Star break up to .238. He has driven in 15 runs in his past 17 games, compared with 21 RBIs in his first 80 games.

Alexander's strong finish might even be reviving interest in him on the trade front, but even Alexander's biggest fan, agent Mike Powers, acknowledged Alexander has not made the anticipated progress this season.

"I'm not trying to make excuses for him," Powers said. "He's having a bad year. No question. But there is a lot of stuff going on in his life and I'm a big believer that stuff affects these guys.

"His wife is up here for the first time ever, pregnant and due in a couple of weeks. She speaks no English and she's all alone when Manny is on the road. I think that weighs on him. People don't realize what a difficult adjustment that is. You don't speak the language and you have a hard time translating dollars into pesos and pesos into dollars. Just little things like that."

Tough shadow to shake

In any language, it's hard to imagine much playing time for Alexander if he stays with the Orioles.

"He's not Cal Ripken and he never will be," Powers said. "That's a real difficult shadow. Cal Ripken arguably is the best player who has ever played. There will never be a replacement for Cal Ripken. Never, ever. And it's not like Manny's going to walk in and replace Mark McLemore, who I think is a darn good second baseman and is a better hitter than Manny ever will be."

Alexander is better suited for short, Powers agrees.

"Manny's arm is second to none in this organization," Powers said. "For Manny to go to second is like taking a cannon and putting him in a place where you have to shoot a ball five feet. It's overkill."

A trade would be best for Alexander's career, but the Orioles can't afford to give him away.

Alexander is the only insurance policy in the system for both Ripken and McLemore. The lack of depth doesn't end in the middle of the infield. No third baseman from the system projects as major-league ready for next season as an insurance policy for Leo Gomez.

"Those things go in cycles," Melvin said of talent shortages and surpluses by position. "Four years ago, we didn't have any outfield prospects and our pitching was thin. Our scouting department focused on outfielders and pitching. Last year, when we started realizing the benefits of that, we went after infielders."

The Orioles used their second-round choices in each of the past two seasons on infielders. David Lamb was drafted out of high school in 1993 and has made significant progress in this, his first full season of pro ball.

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