Bonilla? O's have cash, should use

July 19, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Not that they should need any convincing, but the Orioles now have another reason to trade for Bobby Bonilla. This is Jeffrey Hammonds' fourth career trip to the disabled list. He's not going to help the Orioles this season. And at this rate, he might never become an impact player.

Hammonds merits the benefit of the doubt, because he's coming off reconstructive knee surgery, and his neck injury might be the result of trying to overcompensate for his leg. But it's always something with him, isn't it? And the fact is, the Orioles would need Bonilla even if Hammonds and Chris Hoiles were healthy.

Here's the cleanup man the Orioles covet, a switch-hitter who can play right field the rest of the season, then move to third base if the Orioles want to break in Alex Ochoa next year and make a hard decision on Hammonds.

Bonilla, 32, is a below-average defensive player, but New York Mets hitting coach Tom McCraw said, "He's not going to hurt you in the outfield." At a salary of $4.5 million, he'd also cost $2 million less than Joe Carter next season, and $1.5 million less than Kirby Puckett.

"He'd be the strongest guy on this team," said Orioles right fielder Kevin Bass, who was Bonilla's teammate with the Mets for the final two months of the 1992 season. "He'd hit that danged building over there," Bass added, referring to the B&O zTC Warehouse.

Can the Orioles get Bonilla? If they make the right offer. San Diego wouldn't give the Mets a top prospect and one or two other young players, and is expected to acquire Houston's Phil Plantier instead. But the Orioles can satisfy the Mets' demands, if they start with Armando Benitez or Arthur Rhodes.

Benitez, 22, might be a better fit for the Mets, who are loaded with young starting pitchers, and probably would want a young closer. He would also be a better pitcher to trade. Rhodes, 25, is left-handed, throws quality breaking pitches, and is showing flashes of dominance now that he's in the bullpen.

Again, the question must be asked: How many teams develop their own closers? Bruce Sutter once said that a closer must reach rock bottom before he develops the mental toughness to rebound from blown saves. Benitez is already an emotional sort. His development could take several years.

Besides, what difference does it make if he becomes a star with another club? The way owner Peter Angelos operates, the Orioles will just acquire another closer. Heck, it's not even unrealistic to envision them signing Benitez as a free agent later in his career, assuming he fits into this fancy collection by then.

If price is no object, and apparently it isn't with Angelos, then the farm system is just a means to an end. No, the great Orioles teams weren't built this way. But the game keeps changing, and four-year free agency is expected to be part of the next labor agreement. Teams will lose their top prospects sooner, anyway.

Thus, Angelos might actually be at the cutting edge of developing a new, ruthless, large-market strategy completely by accident. The risk? This season proved that a team of high-priced veterans doesn't always mesh. And if the Mets demand Ochoa on top of Benitez, it would be giving away too much.

No matter. With Angelos, the Hot Stove League is always running full blast, even in the dead of summer. Once and for all, he should just grab the phone from general manager Roland Hemond and conduct the Bonilla talks himself. Then again, that would make him accountable, wouldn't it?

The truth is, the Orioles can prosper this way if they assemble their club with care. To this point, they've had a dismal success rate with former National Leaguers, from Glenn Davis to Sid Fernandez to Bret Barberie to Andy Van Slyke. At first glance, Bonilla would appear to be another poor fit.

But McCraw, the Orioles' former hitting coach, disagrees.

"Bobby is a quality hitter that loves the game," McCraw said yesterday from the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "We're at a stage now where he's taking the mental process to another level. He wants to be the absolute best.

"He stays after games looking at films every night. He wants to learn. Going to the other league wouldn't hurt him at all. I'd be very surprised if it hurt his production."

Bonilla leads the Mets in virtually every offensive category, and he's hitting .324 despite getting little protection in the batting order (Joe Orsulak has replaced the injured Jeff Kent as the Mets' No. 5 hitter).

Defense? It's not as bad as you might think. "Adequate" might be the best word to describe it. Bonilla has played first, third and left this season. The majority of his 13 errors have come on throws at third.

"When we first got him, he played right field, and he wasn't in shape," McCraw said. "He weighed 270. He looked like a fat slob. But the next year he got his act together. He's been at 230-232 the last three years. That says something."

Attitude? It never was an issue in Pittsburgh. Only after Bonilla returned home to New York did he turn irritable. And, in case you haven't noticed, Baltimore is not exactly New York in terms of media scrutiny.

"Bobby was a lightning rod here. Guys could bait him into stuff," McCraw said. "When you're making $29 million, they want you to be Mantle and, hell, they even booed Mantle here. He was the target. He was the man.

"He said, 'I can only give you what's on the back of my bubble-gam card,' 20-25 homers a year, 80-90 RBIs. He's done that. He's not a bad guy, he really isn't."

If the Orioles get Bonilla, all they'll need is a healthy Hoiles to make their lineup a sufficient complement to perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the league.

Trade now, and worry later. Like it or not, that's the way Angelos operates. As long as he provides the talent, as long as he produces World Series contenders, who's to argue?

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