Orioles' Mercedes is loaded with extras


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Luis Mercedes has more going for him than his name, but apparently he doesn't have enough cylinders to get to the big leagues this year.

He keeps playing exhibition games, getting on base and creating havoc with his speed. However, he can't run fast enough to get to Baltimore -- at least not now.

Mercedes reached base four of the five times he went to the plate in the Orioles' 11-9 win over Toronto yesterday. In the process, he forced a couple of errors that figured prominently in a pair of three-run innings and he didn't do anything wrong in the outfield.

Does he have a chance to jump from Double A to the Orioles' roster?

"Nope," manager Frank Robinson said after yesterday's exhibition.

No chance at all?

"None," said Robinson.

So how come Mercedes, who has 14 hits and six walks in 12 games (including two "B" games), is playing so much? "So I can see him," said Robinson. "The more I see, the more I know about him."

And how long will Mercedes continue to go on display? "Until we send him down," said Robinson. "When everybody else is healthy and the time comes, we'll tell him 'OK, now it's time for you to prepare for your season.' "

The master plan is for Mercedes, 23, to play at Triple A Rochester this year. He has two straight batting titles (at Single A Frederick in 1989 and Double A Hagerstown in 1990) in his resume, and more importantly, he's made a genuine impression in this camp.

"I like his all-around game," said Robinson. "He can play. He runs, he hits, he does the little things you need to win games.

"When he's got a bat in his hands, he knows what to do to help win games. He's quite a talent."

On a team that is searching for a true leadoff hitter, even though Mike Devereaux's performance this spring has been extraordinary, there could be a temptation to rush Mercedes. Three years ago the Orioles might have done just that.

But Robinson insists that Mercedes will not be rushed, that he and the club will benefit most if he plays a year at Triple A. Or, at least, most of a year.

The knock against Mercedes has been that he's a poor defensive player. A native of San Pedro de Macoris, the Dominican Republic's shortstop capital of the world, Mercedes was signed as a middle infielder by the Orioles in 1987 (an undrafted free agent).

His defensive skills at second base were questionable when he played at Frederick two years ago and he switched to the outfield last year. There is no question about his offense. Last year at Hagerstown, Mercedes had 14 bunt singles and 38 stolen bases en route to a .334 average that led the Eastern League.

He has played all three outfield positions for the Orioles this spring. And even though he thinks a year in Triple A is necessary, Robinson said he has no doubts Mercedes can complete the transition. "He will be able to play the outfield in the big leagues," said Robinson. "There's no doubt about that. He's still learning; he just needs a little more time."

Mercedes' speed, though it needs to be harnessed, would seem to make him a logical leadoff hitter, but Robinson won't categorize him at this point. "He could hit there," said Robinson, "but he could also hit second or third.

The fact that Robinson has played Mercedes as often as he has is a clear indication the manager likes what he sees. It also means he wants to get an early line on Mercedes, in case the Orioles have to make any moves during the season.

How fast Mercedes arrives in Baltimore could be determined by Dwight Evans' ability to play in the outfield -- and how often Brady Anderson can get on base. Evans is the only natural outfielder on the roster who hits from the right side of the plate -- and he hasn't played in the field since late 1989.

The Orioles will push the Randy Milligan experiment in leftfield until they are absolutely certain it isn't feasible. If that happens -- and nobody has a clue yet because Milligan hasn't had a fly ball in 23 innings in the outfield -- then a righthanded-hitting outfielder would be a necessity.

In the meantime, Mercedes is taking advantage of his extended exposure. He can make things happen on the basepaths, as he proved yesterday when he forced a couple of infield throwing errors.

It's a dimension the Orioles would like to add to their lineup. But, as intriguing as the possibilities might be, Robinson is ignoring the temptation -- for now.

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