Alexander keeping 3rd warm for Ripken?

March 04, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Cal Ripken to third base?

The question, once so preposterous, is becoming more legitimate.

The move isn't going to happen this season. It might not even happen next season. But the Orioles apparently intend to keep Manny Alexander, and the most logical reason is that they still consider him their shortstop of the future.

Barring the unforeseen, Alexander isn't going to play short this season. He isn't going to play second. And yesterday was only the second time in his life he played third, where no one expects him to be the next Brooks Robinson.

Frankly, the only way the Orioles will need him is if Ripken gets hurt, and the chances of that happening after 2,153 consecutive games are about as good as the chances of Alexander becoming president -- be it Manny or Lamar.

So, where does Alexander fit? Jeff Huson and Bill Ripken are more experienced utility infielders. And Alexander, nearing his 25th birthday, is out of minor-league options, giving the club yet another reason to trade him.

Yet, that's not the plan.

"I would say unless he does something crazy, he'll be here," general manager Pat Gillick said.

A trade?

"We're not of the mind right now to do that."

Ripken to third?

"We really haven't thought about it."

Clearly, it isn't time for such a move -- Ripken, 35, remains one of the best shortstops in the game, and he'll be even better now that Roberto Alomar is his double-play partner.

The problem is third base. If B. J. Surhoff or Bobby Bonilla can play the position, fine. But ultimately, the Orioles might be a better team with Alexander at short and Ripken at third.

And Davey Johnson might be the only manager in baseball gutsy enough to make such a change, even if some would consider it blasphemy to tinker with the Sacred Cal.

Johnson has his own ideas, that's for sure.

He scoffed at the Orioles' two-year experiment with Alexander at second yesterday, saying, "I would never put that cannon on the right side of the infield."

He also derided the Orioles' attempt to play Juan Bell at short in the spring of 1988, saying, "I didn't like it. I didn't think he was going to be a first-division shortstop. I didn't see the great hands, the great, accurate arm."

Alexander?

He's already 4-for-5 with two doubles in the Grapefruit League. He hadn't taken any grounders at third, hadn't played the position but one inning in his entire career, yet made two standout plays yesterday.

The first was a diving grab of a sharply hit grounder to his left that led to a force at second. The second was a bullet throw to first after he bobbled a backhand stab of a ball down the line, then recovered it in the air with his bare hand.

"I like him a lot," Johnson said. "He's a good little player. He's got bat potential. He's got a great arm. He runs good. He fields good. It takes you about five minutes to see that."

Of course, it's one thing to like Alexander, and it's another to clear a spot for him by displacing an All-Star, a future Hall of Famer, a living, breathing legend.

Johnson isn't ready to do that.

"Anything's possible," he said. "[But] I don't want to move my All-Star, Hall of Fame shortstop and my All-Star, Hall of Fame second baseman out of their natural positions.

"There's no doubt in my mind Cal would be a great third baseman. He'd be great wherever you put him. But I like the fact that I've got his brains in that position -- he can read what's going on, control what's going on.

"If that's our best offensive team and defensive team at some point in time, I would think Cal would say to me, 'Maybe we're better off doing that.' It's not going to be a Bell situation where you say, 'That's what we're going to do.' "

Fair enough, but in the meantime, what do you do with Alexander? Bill Ripken figures to be the main backup at third. Huson is currently the only left-handed hitter on the bench. As it is, neither figures to get much playing time.

Maybe the need for Huson will diminish if the Orioles acquire a left-handed-hitting outfielder. Maybe Alexander will start once a week at third if he can handle it. Maybe Johnson will even try him in the outfield -- "a possibility," Gillick said.

Johnson has a knack for using all 25 players, and Alexander is far more of a base-stealing threat than Ripken and Huson. Still, it's a waste of his range to use him at third. It's a waste to keep him at all, unless there's a larger plan.

Alexander is convinced he'll never play short in Baltimore -- "Junior will be here forever," he sighed. For three years now, he has waited for the Iron Man to slow down.

Has any player ever been in a more awkward position?

Ideally, the Orioles would trade him to a team that would play him every day, but that's not going to happen. Alexander grew frustrated alternating with Bret Barberie at second last season. Now, he seems prepared to embrace a utility role.

"It'd be easier to accept," Alexander said. "I know these guys are going to play. Alomar is a superstar. Ripken is a superstar. B. J. Surhoff, you know he's going to hit .300. There's nothing I can do but keep working hard."

At short, third, wherever. Alexander kept glancing at Ripken to motion him into position yesterday. He didn't know the sign indicating a throw from the catcher. And he failed to look back a runner on second, enabling him to take third on a groundout.

Johnson praised his play, but how long can this go on? If Ripken stays at short two more years, a second Dominican shortstop, Juan Bautista, will enter the picture. If he stays three or four more years, so will a third, Eddy Martinez.

At some point, it will be time for Ripken to move. Maybe that day is still far off. Or maybe it's coming sooner than we think, considering the Orioles' renewed infatuation with Manny Alexander.

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