A little defense would be music to Red Sox's ears

On Baseball

April 14, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

A Boston band called Slide has produced a hit song that's drawing raves from all parts of the city. It's called "Forgiving Buckner."

How apropos, in a season when the Red Sox cannot catch the ball and have paid dearly for their indiscretions. They are not alone: The most disappointing teams in the first days of the season -- the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Florida Marlins and Boston -- are killing themselves with their defensive lapses.

Conversely, the hottest teams in the game -- the Orioles, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers -- are good defensively.

"We're going to catch the ball," San Diego GM Kevin Towers said last week, "and we're going to give ourselves a chance to win."

Same with the Orioles, who have established early that they almost never will beat themselves. They may go through periods when they don't hit or don't get good pitching, but they always should catch the ball. In the first nine games, the Orioles had more than twice as many double plays (11) as errors (five).

The starting infield of Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken and B. J. Surhoff committed two errors in the first eight games. Granted, it's premature to be drawing deep statistical analysis, but if they continue this pace, they'd commit only 40 errors all year, or just five more than Jose Offerman made in '95, when he was with the Dodgers.

Houston Astros manager Terry Collins said Friday that he is certain the Padres will continue to be a serious contender because of their defense, which includes Gold Glove winners at first base (Wally Joyner), third base (Ken Caminiti), left field (Rickey Henderson), center field (Steve Finley) and right field (Tony Gwynn). Catcher Brad Ausmus and second baseman Jody Reed are regarded as good defensive players, and shortstop Andujar Cedeno, terrible last year as he struggled with personal problems, is much improved.

The Padres are a West Coast and less-talented version of the Orioles: good defense, a deep lineup of solid hitters without overwhelming power, good pitching and little depth in the event of pitching injuries.

When they left Baltimore for Texas, Rangers GM Doug Melvin and manager Johnny Oates apparently took with them the philosophy of the old Orioles way -- catch the ball. Texas made just two errors in its first eight games, and won seven of those eight.

"The game is hard enough as it is," Oates said. "If you give the team extra outs, it's even harder. All we want is for these guys to make plays they're supposed to make."

The double-play combination of Kevin Elster (filling in for injured Benji Gil) and second baseman Mark McLemore is making the routine plays, and they helped their outfield defense by playing Rusty Greer in left and shifting Juan Gonzalez to right.

Cleveland will overcome its slow start and run away with the AL Central; the Indians are too good, with too much power and starting pitching, to languish for long. But the Indians and Red Sox will have poor defensive teams all year, because there's really no way they can improve trouble spots.

Indians first baseman Julio Franco has proved that winning a Gold Glove in Japan (something he did last summer) doesn't really mean a whole lot. He is a liability, particularly on short-hop throws from other infielders. But if the Indians want to keep his bat in the lineup, they have nowhere else to play him. Eddie Murray is the designated hitter and hasn't been a regular first baseman since he left the NL after the 1993 season.

The defense of second baseman Carlos Baerga has regressed, and third baseman Jim Thome, left fielder Albert Belle and right fielder Manny Ramirez never have been good fielders. Hargrove, like Boston manager Kevin Kennedy, must hope the Indians slug enough to overcome.

The Red Sox's defensive dilemma is more acute. Boston has bad fielders at first (Mo Vaughn), left field (Mike Greenwell), center (Dwayne Hosey or Troy O'Leary) and right (Jose Canseco or Kevin Mitchell).

Converted second baseman Wil Cordero played well in spring training, but now the Red Sox staff fears that an existing rotator-cuff tear has begun to hamper his throwing ability, particularly when turning the double play.

They could bench Cordero, but then would lose one of their best hitters. They could try to improve the outfield defense, but their contractual obligations severely limit their options. Trading Greenwell is all but impossible, because of his $3.7 million contract and because he's a .300 hitter who doesn't run well or hit for power.

Dumping Mitchell wouldn't make sense at this point. Benching or releasing Greenwell and picking up a good outfielder (the Milwaukee Brewers' Chuck Carr?) might be the most logical move, but they'd have to deal with the public backlash for discarding a longtime Red Sox veteran.

The Red Sox made more errors than any other AL team last year and still won the division, and GM Dan Duquette gambled that he could worsen the defense, adding sluggers Cordero and Mitchell, without hurting the team.

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