Greene deal lets O's look to the future

August 11, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Cal Ripken is in no immediate danger -- Willie Greene can't play third base. But Robin Ventura can, and Ryan Minor can, and Willis Otanez can. By next season, at the latest, The Streak will be in jeopardy.

For now, Greene poses more of a threat to Rafael Palmeiro. No one would suggest that he's a better left-handed power hitter. But Greene represents insurance at first if Palmeiro doesn't relent on his demand for a five-year contract.

That's what yesterday's trade was about -- giving the Orioles a player more dependable than Jeffrey Hammonds for the present, and a fall-back position for the future.

Greene, who turns 27 on Sept. 23, is both a corner-infield and outfield option at a time when Ripken is in decline and Palmeiro, Eric Davis and B. J. Surhoff are potential free agents.

If the Orioles lose Palmeiro, they can find a right-handed-hitting first baseman to platoon with Greene. Or, they could sign Ventura to play third and employ a Greene-Ripken platoon at first until Calvin Pickering is ready in 2000.

Greene at third? Forget it. He made 12 errors in 69 starts at third for Cincinnati this season (Ripken has five in 117 starts for the Orioles). The Reds were 27-42 when Greene started at third, 26-23 when he didn't. We're talking Russ Davis II.

The Orioles wanted Greene for his bat speed, not for his glove. He can play first, third and left, but both Orioles GM Pat Gillick and Reds GM Jim Bowden described him as "an American League-type player" -- in other words, one without a position.

Cincinnati is loaded with young power hitters -- Sean Casey at first, Dmitri Young in left, Paul Konerko at Triple-A. Greene is more valuable to the Orioles than he was to the Reds, especially with the short right-field porch at Camden Yards.

For now, the Orioles figure to work his bat into the lineup when they can. A dead fastball hitter, Greene will be perfect off the bench against hard-throwing right-handed closers. But he has no obvious spot on the 1998 club.

"He's got tremendous bat speed, tremendous hands," Bowden said. "He's a bat, a power bat, a young power bat. Those are hard to come by."

The Orioles haven't developed one since Ripken, but now they've got a group that includes not just Greene, but also Pickering, Minor and Otanez. Each is intriguing. Then again, Hammonds was supposed to be the biggest can't-miss of all.

Scouts loved his blend of speed and power, projecting him as the next Rickey Henderson. But injuries prevented Hammonds from becoming the player the Orioles expected when they made him the fourth pick of the 1992 draft.

Perhaps he will benefit from the change of leagues, from getting a full-time shot in center field, from playing on artificial turf, where he can better use his speed. But he's 27 now. The Orioles had waited long enough.

Brady Anderson is signed through 2002. Surhoff and Davis are expected to return. The Orioles likely will try to find another center fielder so they can move Anderson to left. They just didn't trust Hammonds to be that player.

The Orioles are in a tricky position, competing for a wild card but trying to plan for the future. The trade for Juan Guzman served both purposes. The trade for Greene offers less of a short-term gain, but more long-term flexibility.

So much hinges on Palmeiro.

If the Orioles don't want to give him five years, they shouldn't have given Anderson and Scott Erickson five years. The addition of Greene could enable them to replace Palmeiro from within, something they couldn't do with Anderson and Erickson. But can they truly afford to lose their best hitter?

Probably not, but they could remain competitive if they signed Ventura to play third, formed a one-year bridge to Pickering at first and filled another hole by trading Minor.

Pickering no longer can be ignored -- he's on a 30-homer, 114-RBI pace at Double-A, and that's with a 140-game season. Minor has been less impressive (.251, 16 HRs, 63 RBIs), but still may be ready to take over at third after next season.

Then there's Otanez.

Any other team already would have promoted a Triple-A third baseman with 25 homers and 91 RBIs -- especially when their own third-base production ranks 11th and 12th in the league in those categories.

What are the Orioles doing?

Experimenting with Otanez at first.

Otanez, 25, isn't exactly a kid (neither is Minor at 24). Gillick said he is only "adequate" at third. But what if the Orioles fall out of contention in September? Wouldn't he be worth a look then?

The logical answer is yes, but the Orioles aren't going to end The Streak for Willis Otanez. Indeed, they probably won't end it without giving Ripken a full off-season to digest the change, the way they did when they moved him to third base.

The day of reckoning is coming -- Ripken turns 38 on Aug. 24, and the Orioles no longer can justify playing him 162 games. The arrival of Willie Greene doesn't jeopardize The Streak. But it's a sign, the first real sign, that the end is near.

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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