Batting Belle in fourth spot would add up

February 24, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Albert Belle prefers to hit fourth. Albert Belle should hit fourth.

The Orioles gave Belle $65 million, and now they're going to ask him to adjust to the No. 3 spot?

It makes no sense, especially with a player so particular about his routines. And besides, the Orioles would be best served with Belle batting cleanup.

Moving from left field to right is not as big an issue -- Belle came up as a right fielder, and noted in his group interview Monday that B. J. Surhoff made only three errors last season in left.

But batting cleanup?

Belle said he takes pride in protecting the hitter in front of him, the way he did with Frank Thomas in Chicago.

The trick now is for manager Ray Miller to devise a lineup that works, no easy task with this team of slapped-together, ill-fitting parts.

"Believe me, anything you can bring up, I've thought about," Miller said. "I've got stacks of paper at home five feet high."

Whatever, this is Belle's team now. Miller should construct his batting order to maximize the slugger's production. If it means bruising egos, so be it.

At 38, Cal Ripken is no longer a middle- of-the-lineup hitter. And Brady Anderson, coming off a dismal season, must prove he deserves to bat in one of the first three spots.

Miller originally spoke of batting Belle third because of the baseball axiom that says your best hitter should bat in the first inning.

The problem with batting Belle third is simple. If Miller ran Delino DeShields or Anderson, first base would be open and opponents would walk Belle.

Sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

If it's spring training, the Orioles are talking about manufacturing runs, playing more of a National League style. They never actually do it, but it's the thought that counts.

For Belle to hit cleanup, Miller probably would need to elevate Mike Bordick to the No. 2 spot, at least against left-handers. Bordick is the team's best bunter, and adept at bat control. It could work.

Who would hit third with Belle protecting him?

Surhoff and Will Clark are obvious possibilities, and Miller seems intrigued by Anderson. Three years ago, Anderson hit 50 home runs, drawing fastball after fastball with a motivated Roberto Alomar hitting behind him.

Who would hit fifth protecting Belle?

Clark if he wasn't the No. 3 hitter; otherwise, Surhoff or Harold Baines. Belle seemed to do just fine with Robin Ventura batting behind him last season. And Ventura's numbers were almost identical to Surhoff's.

Miller wants to establish a fairly set batting order by Opening Day, and he'll likely toy with various combinations this spring, trying to figure out this baseball equivalent of a Rubik's Cube.

He knows one thing: He regrets using 132 lineups last season, fourth most in the American League behind Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Kansas City, three teams experimenting with young players.

Injuries contributed to the Orioles' total, as did lack of production. But Miller also juggled too much, alienating a number of veterans in the process.

Much as he wants to avoid a repeat, it might be unavoidable. Injuries again might disrupt the equation, just as they already have with Houston (Moises Alou) and Anaheim (Gary DiSarcina). And lack of production could again force his hand.

Anderson, for one, is a wild card. Did last season mark the start of his decline, or was it simply an aberration? Is he still enough of a base-stealing threat to bat leadoff? Would he resist batting in the lower part of the order?

Other players raise different concerns:

DeShields is a better No. 2 hitter than a leadoff man -- he batted .305 in the two spot the past five seasons, .249 batting first. The difference last season was even more pronounced (.353-.231).

Clark is frequently injured and might lack the power to offer Belle adequate protection -- he hit 23 homers last season with his contract expiring, but averaged 14 homers in his six seasons before that.

Bordick might need to be removed for a pinch hitter against hard-throwing right-handers, forcing Miller to play Jeff Reboulet at shortstop in the late innings.

The counter-argument: Bordick hit .285 off righties last season, .184 off lefties -- which, of course, is a flaw in the theory of Bordick batting second against left-handers.

Put it all together, and Miller is left with a dizzying number of options, not to mention a team facing more offensive questions than it cares to admit.

Other than Belle, where's the right-handed power? Bordick, Ripken and Charles Johnson -- the other three right-handed regulars -- combined for only 46 homers last season.

What if an outfielder gets injured? Eric Davis and Jeffrey Hammonds are no longer with the club. Rich Amaral -- he of the 11 career homers -- is the only outfield reserve.

Troubling as those prospects are, a manager can worry about only so much. For now, Miller keeps scribbling lineups, and he's asking his coaches to do the same.

"We'll get it right," Miller vowed yesterday.

Getting it right starts with the $65 million man. If Albert Belle prefers to hit fourth, he should hit fourth. End of discussion.

The big shuffle

Orioles manager Ray Miller faces a myriad of choices in selecting his 1999 lineup. Among his possibilities:

With Albert Belle hitting third (vs. right-handers)

1. Delino DeShields L

2. Brady Anderson L

3. Belle R

4. Will Clark L

5. Harold Baines L

6. Cal Ripken R

7. B.J. Surhoff L

8. Charles Johnson R

9. Mike Bordick R

With Belle hitting third (vs. left-handers)

1. DeShields L

2. Bordick R

3. Surhoff L

4. Belle R

5. Clark L

6. Ripken R

7. Anderson L

8. Chris Hoiles R

9. Johnson R

With Belle hitting fourth (vs. left-handers)

1. DeShields L

2. Bordick R

3. Clark L

4. Belle R

5. Hoiles R

6. Surhoff L

7. Ripken R

8. Anderson L

9. Johnson R

With Belle hitting fourth (vs. right-handers)

1. DeShields L

2. Anderson L

3. Clark L

4. Belle R

5. Baines L

6. Surhoff L

7. Ripken R

8. Bordick R

9. Johnson R

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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