O's Outfield Going Deep In New Way

April 21, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

BOSTON -- Mark Smith, Luis Polonia and Brent Bowers each made at least 10 outfield starts for the Orioles last season. Mike Devereaux, the leading outfield reserve, batted .229.

"It was awful," manager Davey Johnson said.

Depth, that's the difference in this team. The Orioles are 11-3 for the second straight year, but this group is far better suited for the long haul. It not only has a deeper pitching staff, but also a deeper outfield.

Pete Incaviglia opened the season on the disabled list. Eric Davis has missed three straight games. Brady Anderson is still the designated hitter. But the Orioles have yet to suffer, offensively or defensively.

In fact, Jeffrey Hammonds is playing so well in center, Johnson won't rule out keeping him at that position when Anderson is healthy enough to play the outfield, which could be as soon as tomorrow night.

"We'll address that when it comes up," Johnson said after yesterday's 11-1 victory over Boston.

Care to elaborate, Davey?

"We'll do what's best for the team."

Those, of course, were fighting words last season, but fear not: Anderson isn't going to be this year's Cal Ripken. Moving him to left also would disrupt B. J. Surhoff, who would become the left-handed DH.

"I'll be in center," Anderson said, rather authoritatively.

He's right -- Johnson doesn't want to alienate two of his regulars, not to mention Incaviglia, who already wants more at-bats. This is not going to be another season of "As the Orioles Turn" right, Davey?

"I like Brady in center. He knows that," Johnson said. "And he'll be a lot better with the speed we've got on the corners. It's just like with Cal -- if he had someone to play deep and come off the line [at third], it would have been much easier for him at shortstop."

So, what is Johnson trying to tell us?

Probably that Hammonds is now a viable alternative in center, and nothing more.

"He's much better there than on the corners," Johnson said. "He's winning some games not only with the bat, but with the glove."

Hammonds used his bat yesterday, hitting a two-run double off the Green Monster to break a scoreless tie in the fourth inning. He's 8-for-21 with four extra-base hits since ending an 0-for-14 slump.

His glove?

"I had never seen him play center, but he looks very comfortable," pitcher Jimmy Key said. "He's made a lot of good catches. It's a credit to his athletic ability to go do that when he really hasn't played there a lot."

Actually, Hammonds played center at Stanford and all through the minors. He struggled as a corner outfielder last season, but for some players center is actually easier -- the ball doesn't slice or hook as much.

Whatever, Johnson said he is confident in each of his outfielders -- yes, even Incaviglia. But he probably will be shuffling them all season, given the injury histories of Davis, Jerome Walton and Hammonds.

Those three have combined for 20 trips to the disabled list in their major-league careers. And each already has missed time -- Davis with a shoulder bruise, Hammonds and Walton with groin pulls.

Granted, Johnson is overprotecting his players in the cold weather -- Walton, he said, is still only 70 percent. In effect, each serves as an insurance policy for the other.

"I come in early to check the training room," Johnson said.

Davis has never played more than 135 games in a season, Walton never more than 123, Hammonds never more than 71. In fact, Davis has had seasons of 37 home runs, 101 RBIs and 80 stolen bases -- but never 500 at-bats.

Thus, outfield depth is critical -- even if Anderson chooses to play through appendicitis or a cracked rib, even if Surhoff's only injury-marred season was in 1994.

Eventually, the Orioles also figure to need Tony Tarasco, who was sent to Triple-A to make room for Incaviglia. Texas apparently wanted Tarasco as a potential replacement for the injured Mickey Tettleton, but the Orioles balked.

"We could trade him," Johnson said. "But I don't want to."

Without Tarasco, the Orioles lack a left-handed hitter on their bench when Anderson and Surhoff are in the lineup. But for now, Johnson prefers the right-handed emphasis.

The Orioles are 4-0 against left-handed starters after going 24-25 last season. And Johnson notes that two of the teams they must beat -- New York and Seattle -- feature three lefty starters.

It might be only one game, but when the Orioles face Randy Johnson, the manager envisions a lineup with Walton at first base, Incaviglia at DH and Davis and Hammonds in the outfield.

Walton, the 1989 National League Rookie of the Year, signed with Johnson's Cincinnati Reds after California released him in '93. He played first base for Johnson in the NL -- "played it good," Johnson said.

"He can do it all," said first base coach John Stearns, a member of Johnson's staff in Cincinnati. "His only drawback is that he gets hurt a lot. But if you can get this guy on the field, he's an outstanding player. I'm not talking about good -- I mean outstanding."

Better than Mark Smith. Better than Luis Polonia. Better than Brent Bowers.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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