Question after trade: Is Hammonds real deal? Carter's departure puts outfielder on spot again

Inside the Orioles

July 26, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles devoted last week to making statements both obvious and subtle. Everyone from chief operating officer Joe Foss on down insisted they would make a push for the postseason rather than sell off pending free agents as part of a clubhouse purge.

Two days later they traded outfielder Joe Carter to the San Francisco Giants for Triple-A pitcher Darin Blood.

A contradiction? Not really.

When the Orioles traded away the classy but eroding Carter, they Hammonds discarded a player of the past. They also cleared the way for outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, a player of the present whose qualities include speed, power and a maddening susceptibility to injury. Hammonds was less than two days away from returning to the starting lineup when Carter was dealt.

Now the Orioles want to see Hammonds play.

To the frustration of club officials and especially manager Ray Miller, before yesterday, Hammonds had been available for only two at-bats since Memorial Day because of a bulging disk in his back.

"He's an excellent athlete. He's a fast guy. He's strong. He's worked on his throwing. All those are pluses. Now all you've got to do is get to the post," Miller said. "What I don't like is sitting out a lot of time at this point in the year. Hitters are hitting. Pitchers are pitching. The good ones are locked in right now."

Hammonds acknowledges it's probably too late to find a comfort zone this season. But he will grab at the current opportunity.

The Orioles believe now is the time to challenge Hammonds. If the Thursday trade didn't make the point, Miller did Friday.

"Jeffrey has to play. He has to get out there and play," Miller said. "Hopefully nothing will set him back for a month or so and he'll be fine. It seems every time throughout his career he's gotten something going something happens and it sets him back. But I want to find out now because I don't want to mess with it another month."

"I need to play. I know I need to play," Hammonds said after playing in yesterday's 4-2 loss to the Mariners. "I want to play. I love playing the game. And I'm doing everything I can to play."

Though he insists off-season surgery is not a consideration, Hammonds has endured disk problems before. In 1993 -- his first exposure to the majors -- Hammonds missed the final two months with a herniated disk. That was the beginning of a laundry list of injuries. In 1994 Hammonds had reconstructive surgery on his right knee. A year later, shoulder problems hampered him. And in 1996 he suffered a strained knee and did not appear after Aug. 15.

Hammonds further teased the Orioles last year when he hit 21 home runs in only 397 at-bats.

Still, convinced of his ability at this level, the club signed him to a multi-year contract in February rather than go through arbitration.

Signing Carter for $3.3 million was a curious move from the start. At the end of a borderline Hall of Fame career, Carter remained a streaky free swinger who requires an unbroken string of at-bats to be productive. The Orioles couldn't guarantee him that, especially when Eric Davis arrived at spring training vibrant.

Carter chafed at his sporadic time here. Likewise, Miller became impatient with Carter's reluctance to change his approach at the plate.

"It would not have been a good situation if I had been here and not playing. I wouldn't have been doing anybody any good. It would be unfair for the Orioles, for me to be sitting there not able to play," Carter said.

Unfair to Carter. Even more unfair to a younger player such as Hammonds.

"I know I have the talent to play every day here," Hammonds said. "I think the club recognized that this spring. If they want to challenge me, fine. I want to challenge myself."

Momentum for Thursday's deal had increased over the past month. Carter became a one-dimensional player whose effectiveness as a hitter diminished. Of his 11 homers, Carter crammed five in an 11-game span June 5-17. Hammonds was on the disabled list at the time.

Carter's trade value was even less than it appears. Not only did the Orioles surrender him for a Triple-A pitcher, they agreed to eat one of two $500,000 deferrals due him beginning next year.

The Orioles continue to evaluate a talent they would like to see in right or center field every day. Asked how long the evaluation will last, Miller said, "I'm sure that'll continue from now through midseason next year. If the results are the same we might have to change our thinking."

Hammonds has heard these words from other managers. This weekend was supposed to be a time to begin giving his answer.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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