Help the kids, O's, starting with Minor

May 14, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

When the Boston Red Sox placed Nomar Garciaparra on the disabled list Friday, they recalled Donnie Sadler to play shortstop. When they placed John Valentin on the DL on April11, they promoted Wilton Veras to play third base virtually every day.

The Orioles summoned third baseman Ryan Minor to replace the injured Will Clark on May 3. They already trail the Red Sox by 6 1/2 games in the wild-card standings. So how is it that Minor can't get off their bench, when the entire left side of the Red Sox's infield started the season at Triple-A?

The question is becoming more relevant by the minute. The answer is complicated by Cal Ripken's uncertain condition. But manager Mike Hargrove said after yesterday's 5-1 loss to Boston that Minor could begin playing ahead of veteran utility man Mark Lewis, starting today.

Minor won't make the difference for a team that has lost six straight games, a team that is 1- 8 in a telling 10-game stretch against New York, Toronto and Boston, a team that soon might be confronted with decisions it has avoided for too long.

But it's time the Orioles stopped eating their young.

Ripken was the last All-Star position player they developed for their own club, and he began his career in 1982. Arizona center fielder Steve Finley is the only All-Star position player they've developed for another team, and he began his career in '89.

The Orioles drafted left-handed bust Chris Myers 15 places ahead of Craig Biggio in '87, outfielder Mark Smith four places ahead of Manny Ramirez in '91, outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds two places ahead of Derek Jeter in '92.

Virtually every team can point to similar first-round blunders. But the Orioles' poor drafts have been compounded by their inability to mine the international market and a preoccupation with veteran free agents who have kept the ballpark full, but failed to produce a perennial contender.

Yesterday's game attracted a sellout crowd of 48,579, the largest in Camden Yards history. The sizable contingent of Red Sox fans reveled in another display of Jimy Williams Magic, while Orioles fans booed reliever Mike Trombley for allowing three home runs on seven pitches, and ruining seven shutout innings by Jason Johnson.

Minor, too, was on display, but only for fans paying close attention. He warmed up the Orioles' pitchers between innings, then made an official appearance with two outs in the ninth as a pinch-runner for Harold Baines. He has yet to start in his 11 days with the Orioles, and batted a grand total of three times.

His inactivity was understandable when Ripken was healthy - Jeff Conine replaced Clark at first, and Hargrove needed Minor only as a backup. But with Ripken sidelined by scar-tissue irritation in his lower back, Lewis has started four of the last five games at third base.

The only possible interpretation is that the Orioles trust waiver claims more than their own Triple-A talent. Justified as their thinking might be, it sends a horrible message, discouraging every Orioles minor-leaguer who dreams of playing in Baltimore.

It's one thing when Jerry Hairston is blocked by an expensive free agent like Delino DeShields. But when Minor is blocked by a journeyman batting .211, it's ridiculous.

Fortunately, Hargrove has a valid explanation, and more important, appears flexible in his thinking."If and when Cal gets healthy and Will Clark, then Minor probably is going to be sent out," Hargrove said. "I want the kid to play, and to play well. But it doesn't do this club any good to have him playing in front of Mark Lewis if Mark Lewis is going to be here and not him."But," Hargrove added, "I think I'm going to start playing Minor a little more at third base, because I don't know how long Cal is going to be out."

That, essentially, is the philosophy the Red Sox employ with their young infielders, using former Orioles infielder Manny Alexander as a short-term stopgap, and summoning Sadler and Veras when starters are forced to the DL.

How ironic that Alexander is part of this discussion.

Once a top shortstop prospect for the Orioles, he stands as another example of years of farm-system mismanagement. The Orioles failed to trade him when his value was at its peak. Alexander wound up stuck behind Ripken, a player who started a mere 2,632 consecutive games.

Of course, Alexander turned to be nothing more than a backup, and Minor might not even prove to be that much. Veras, 22, batted .286 in limited playing time for the Red Sox last season. Minor, 26, batted .194 in a comparable number of at-bats.

Still, Minor didn't begin his professional career until he was 22. He plays a solid third base, displaying good hands and a strong arm. And while his hitting has been inconsistent, he batted .342 in spring training, with seven extra-base hits in 38 at-bats."He didn't start playing until he was [older]," Hargrove said. "I think we ought to take that into account. With the way these athletes stay in shape, you see a lot of athletes who don't hit their prime until they're 35 years old. A lot of guys are better players at 35 than they were at 25."If this was 20 years ago, I'd say the chances of him ever becoming a player are slim. But I can't say that."

Let's see him then.

Let's see him until Ripken comes back.

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