ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As rookie Eugene Kingsale's center-field audition continues, so does speculation surrounding incumbent Brady Anderson's future with the Orioles. The Orioles can readily project a starter at every position for next year except center field and designated hitter. While Anderson is signed through 2002, his role is far less certain.
Projected roles are just that. When general manager Frank Wren refuses to specify his new outfield order, he is tacitly bowing to a managerial situation in flux. No general manager would dictate terms to a successor yet to be named. Yet Wren's silence should not be misconstrued as the absence of a plan. When manager Ray Miller spoke in Seattle of needing a center fielder who can "fly," he spoke both for himself and a front office that believes Anderson is less suited for the position than in 1997.
Asked about next season's outfield rotation, Wren said, "I would say it's too early to start penciling in lineups for 2000."
As with many black-and-orange issues, outfield alignment is fraught with underlying considerations. During contract negotiations in December, B. J. Surhoff was assured by Wren that he would remain the team's left fielder. Surhoff has responded with a Gold Glove-caliber season.
One talk-show scenario that had Anderson shifting to left, Surhoff returning to third base and 39-year-old Cal Ripken moving to first base is apparently fantasy.
"Cal will be at third base next season," Wren says. "The issue is how many games he will play, not where he plays them."
Albert Belle told the Orioles he was not interested in serving as DH before accepting their five-year, $65 million contract. While it was once thought the Orioles would renege on their pledge as a means of getting Belle to waive his blanket no-trade clause, Wren says Belle's bat is vital to the team's reconstruction efforts.
Despite Belle's defensive shortcomings, his strong arm and improved relationship with Camden Yards' quirky right field allow Wren to classify him as an "average" outfielder. The club is reluctant to settle for the same in center.
Miller ordered Anderson to play deeper earlier this season, and the result has been fewer balls bounding off the warning track. He later observed that Anderson had lost "two or three steps," at least partly attributable to a chronic problem with a patella tendon as well as bone spurs in an ankle.
Anderson's response earlier this month was, "Who would you rather have playing center field?"
Former GM Pat Gillick once thought Jeffrey Hammonds, but he couldn't start more than a handful of games before getting hurt.
Wren made no secret of his intention in November to sign free agent Brian Jordan and install him in center field. The first-year general manager's latest answer: perhaps Kingsale.
Wren, not Miller, insisted that the Aruban receive at least 20 starts in center field this month. It was Wren who notified Anderson of the decision.
Wren denies suggestions that the Orioles are merely showcasing for trade a player who will be out of minor-league options next spring, adding that Kingsale could either start in center field or make the club as a spare outfielder. However, the Orioles already have a capable defensive outfielder with speed and little power, Rich Amaral, signed through next season.
"It depends on the makeup of the whole club," Wren says.
By process of elimination, the Orioles appear to favor Anderson as designated hitter, a potentially flammable decision given Anderson's pride in his speed and defense. Second in tenure only to Ripken, Anderson also possesses the leverage to veto a trade. Before the July 31 waiver deadline, Anderson, 35, said he would not approve a trade even if the Orioles offered to buy out his no-trade provision. The Orioles, according to club sources, were fully prepared to entertain offers.
Kingsale, meanwhile, has offered a mix.
By learning the strike zone, how to bunt and proper hitting mechanics, the Aruban no longer resembles an overmatched slap-and-run talent. A year ago, he was virtually dismissed by Miller following a September call-up. Not now. His bunt single to lead off Monday's winning rally was the switch-hitter's idea.
Signed as a 16-year-old, Kingsale lagged in physical development for many years. He didn't homer until his 1,028th professional at-bat. Kingsale's deficiencies remain troubling for a speed player. He struggles to get a consistent jump in the outfield and on the bases. He has been picked off, doubled off and caught stealing without registering his first major-league stolen base.
During Matt Riley's debut Sept. 9, Kingsale backed him with a misjudged dive on what was scored a triple. The rookie's unnecessary slide after a gap shot Tuesday allowed an additional base that led to a run.
"You see far more mistakes in September and spring training than any other time of year," Wren says. "Is this the end-all in determining what kind of player he's going to be? No, it's not. But it does give us an indication. I would say what I'm seeing here is exactly what I saw at Triple-A. I saw a guy with good balance, hitting the ball through the middle and doing the little things. It's not like what he's done here is uncharacteristic."
What's uncharacteristic is a front office that says it's willing to commit next year to players such as Kingsale, Jerry Hairston, Jesse Garcia and Riley, none of whom will be older than 23 next April. What's uncharacteristic is the possibility of Brady Anderson, designated hitter.