It's field of doubts for some Orioles Hammonds, Alexander head group of players facing uncertain spring

February 24, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Once the Orioles complete the first part of their morning workout, the squad splits for batting practice. One half goes to the main stadium field, where fans watch and cheer and beckon for autographs. The starters -- players such as Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Bordick -- hit in the stadium.

The other half of the squad disperses to a back field, which sits adjacent to an airport runway. There are no stands, there are no fans. Minor-leaguers and nonroster invitees, such as Danny Magee and Francisco Matos, hit there, the silence interrupted only by the roar of planes taking off.

It says something about the current standing of Jeffrey Hammonds, then, that he is alternating time between the two fields. One day, he hits with the Ripkens, the next day with the Magees. A year ago, two years ago, he would have hit with the Ripkens every day.

Hammonds, like pitchers Jimmy Haynes and Billy Percibal and shortstop Manny Alexander, was once regarded as someone who had a bright future with the Orioles. Now, his future -- and theirs -- with the club is unclear.

The Orioles have three starting outfielders locked in -- Anderson, Eric Davis and B. J. Surhoff. Jerome Walton and Pete Incaviglia are backups. Hammonds will have to have an incredible spring )) to even have a chance to make this team.

Assistant GM Kevin Malone said, "He has to prove to us he's worth keeping."

"It's going to be tight," general manager Pat Gillick said. "It's not insurmountable. This is a very pivotal year for him. He's got to come out of the blocks and give us the feeling he can play here, or he could possibly go back to Triple-A."

That's a thought Hammonds won't entertain. During the winter, he and fellow outfielder Tony Tarasco agreed they couldn't worry about such things, they couldn't worry about whether they would play in Baltimore or Triple-A Rochester. "It's out of my control," Hammonds said.

There's more competition for jobs now, Hammonds agrees, but he feels better prepared for that. Two years ago, he was coming back from major knee surgery, and a year ago he was coming back from a neck-related injury. This off-season, he played winter ball. "I'm getting right out of the chute," Hammonds said. "I'm able to do everything they're asking me to do. I'm getting right into the swing of things."

Even if he plays exceptional baseball in the spring, Gillick, Malone and manager Davey Johnson still may decide to leave him in Triple-A; that way, he could play every day and get the development they think he needs.

"I wasn't here," Gillick said, "so I don't know for sure, but I think Jeffrey was probably rushed to the big leagues. Probably there was some urgency to get him to the majors, and he probably didn't have the foundation he should've had. He had on-the-job training, and it's been tough on him."

If Hammonds doesn't make the team, might the Orioles explore a trade? "We would like to get [his talent] out of him here," Gillick said. A trade "would be, in our estimation, a last resort."

Jimmy Haynes opened last season as the club's No. 5 starter and finished the year a mess, sent home early, club officials believing it would be better to spare his shrinking confidence any more beatings. He went 3-6 with an 8.29 ERA.

The Orioles sent him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where he continued to struggle. But new pitching coach Ray Miller flew to meet him, and Miller was shocked at what he discovered; Haynes, he thought, talked ad nauseam about mechanics, clearly to the point of distraction.

Miller, Haynes remembered, "told me he wasn't going to mess with my mechanics. I said, 'Thank you, that's what I've been waiting to hear all year.' "

Miller told Haynes to just go out and throw the ball, and in his next start, Haynes threw five no-hit innings, striking out 10. Haynes had relapses in subsequent starts, but that one great start proved he still possessed the stuff to succeed.

"I'm just going to forget about last year," Haynes said. "I'm not going to worry about my mechanics. I'm just going to go with the flow, throw the ball and try to make the team and erase last year."

He is a long shot to win back his spot in the rotation, but Miller has liked what he has seen from Haynes this spring, and Gillick says Haynes is back on track.

"He's going to be fine," Gillick said. "He's going to ready to pitch here again. I think it's best for him to start the season in Triple-A. He needs to regroup and take a step back, clear his mind and let the natural talent come out. He was out of whack."

Last spring, Rocky Coppinger was the organization's top pitching prospect, Billy Percibal No. 2. Coppinger advanced to the majors and won 10 games for the Orioles, but Percibal didn't pitch one inning.

Bothered by a sore elbow, Percibal tried to pitch, but only aggravated the injury. An examination revealed a torn ligament, and Percibal required reconstructive elbow surgery and missed the whole season.

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