O's shouldn't be too quick to give up on Bonilla's bat

On Baseball

June 02, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Orioles manager Davey Johnson completed the mission impossible flawlessly, finding a way to motivate a player, Cal Ripken, who hasn't missed a game in 14 years. Johnson stirred Ripken from an early-season slump and established control over the team and didn't even have to make the move he was talking about: Ripken to third base.

But Johnson has another problem that is festering, trouble that eventually could drag down the Orioles -- Bobby Bonilla -- and the manager isn't handling this matter with nearly as much skill.

As all the world knows, Bonilla has disliked the idea of being the designated hitter since Johnson raised the possibility at the end of spring training. Nonetheless, Bonilla suffered along with the plan through the early weeks of the season, swinging the bat well but not showing much production for it. As Bonilla's average plummeted, his despair over being the DH increased, from at-bat to at-bat, to the point he began to swing at any pitch within a time zone of home plate.

Finally, after a loud and angry complaint from Bonilla, Johnson relented and told Bonilla he would be moved to the outfield, for good. But, immediately, Bonilla sprained his ankle, and after being sidelined for several days, Bonilla returned to the lineup, primarily as a designated hitter. On May 22, he publicly ripped Johnson, and fans at Camden Yards began booing Bobby Bo with gusto.

Now, two months into the season, Bonilla is hitting .237 with three homers, or two more than Gregg Zaun. Johnson says he's no longer committed to playing Bonilla in the outfield, and the Orioles have been calling all around baseball to find anyone interested in making a deal for the switch-hitter.

All very cavalier. Perhaps it's because Johnson and the front office were successful in their Ripken venture, or because the Orioles have been winning despite Bonilla's slump, but they are taking a big chance in assuming they can succeed without Bonilla.

Johnson and general manager Pat Gillick are justified in being at wit's end with Bonilla, who should've accepted the assignment as designated hitter and thrived and shouldn't have allowed the whole matter to affect him as it has. But the fact remains that the Orioles will need Bonilla's production at some point, and should do everything to make him happy -- even if Bonilla has violated their sense of how a player should conduct himself.

The Orioles have been carried through the first 50 games by extraordinary offensive performances. Roberto Alomar has never hit higher than .326, and he's batting nearly .400. Brady Anderson has never hit more than 21 homers in a season, and he has 20 already. B. J. Surhoff has 10 homers after never hitting more than 13.

It stands to reason the three will continue to produce, but it would be foolhardy to believe they'll produce at this rate the rest of the season.

The Orioles will need more consistent production from Rafael Palmeiro, whose offense has come in clusters, and Ripken, whose eight-RBI game last week masks his early-season hitting woes. There's no telling what they'll get from Chris Hoiles, an offensive enigma the past two years, or Jeffrey Hammonds, who seems to be having trouble adjusting to the grind of playing on a daily basis.

When Anderson, Alomar and Surhoff inevitably drift to a more normal offensive output, the Orioles will need another big bat, especially since it appears their bullpen will remain thin and David Wells and Scott Erickson are just as capable of getting bombed as they are of pitching shutouts. The Orioles will need Bonilla.

Bonilla obviously is capable of giving them what they will need. He batted .330 last year, driving in 99 runs in 141 games. After joining the Orioles last season, Bonilla batted .333 and his joyous manner of play added life to an otherwise stagnant team. He can be a positive force.

If you remove Bonilla from the Orioles' lineup, suddenly there is no depth, just a string of right-handed batters -- Ripken, Hoiles, Hammonds -- who have struggled much of the season. The top of the lineup will be heavy with left-handed hitters, the bottom heavy in right-handers.

It's Johnson's responsibility, as he has noted dozens of times, to make players feel comfortable enough to express their talent. That means playing Bonilla in the outfield. Every day.

If the Orioles could deal Bonilla and get back a comparable player who would provide some sort of impact, such as Chicago's exceptional outfielder Brian McRae, they should do it. But that kind of trade is almost impossible. The only reason another team would take on Bonilla and his $4.5 million salary is if he could augment what it already has; it would make little sense for a team to trade away a major contributor to get Bonilla.

The Orioles could deal Bonilla for prospects, but in doing so, they would be creating a hole in their lineup they are not equipped to fill.

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