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Keeping Bell appears to be Birds' best option


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Ready or not, it appears that Juan Bell will toil for the Orioles this year.

The talented, but erratic, young shortstop has been less than a revelation with the glove this spring. Under different circumstances he might be ticketed for a return trip to Rochester.

But in order to do that the Orioles would have to risk losing Bell for the waiver price. Such a move would be irrevocable, meaning the Orioles would not be able to withdraw his name if he were claimed by another club.

"We feel sure there are at least three teams who would claim him," said Doug Melvin, the club's director of player personnel. The Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies are two of the teams believed to have an interest in Bell.

Orioles manager Frank Robinson acknowledges that Bell's erratic defensive play this spring (seven errors) is disappointing. He also thinks there are extenuating circumstances, and says Bell will not make the club just because he is out of minor-league options.

"It's one of the decisions we're going to have to make," Robinson said after yesterday's 4-3, 10-inning, loss to the Pirates. "But I don't think it [trying to get Bell through waivers] is something that has to be addressed.

"He's not going to make this club just because he might be lost on the waiver wire. If he makes the club it will be because he can do some things."

Bell, who turns 23 Friday, is the only player remaining from the Eddie Murray trade more than two years ago, when he was considered the key player in the deal by the Orioles. They tried to force him into the big leagues in 1989, but wisely decided to give him time at Triple A.

Robinson, as he has said repeatedly since last winter, thinks it is time for Bell to play in the big leagues, even though his future at shortstop is clouded by the large shadow of Cal Ripken. And Robinson insists the switch-hitting Bell belongs in the big leagues on his own merits -- not just because the Orioles are trying to salvage something from the Murray trade or because his brother George is an accomplished big leaguer.

"I still think he's going to be a fine major-league player," Robinson said of Bell, who has set minor-league defensive marks and batted a solid .285 at Rochester last season. "He's a talent, and you don't like to lose talent just because you might not have room on your roster.

"It would be different if you were talking about a marginal player, somebody you weren't sure was a prospect. Then you wouldn't mind taking the chance [losing him via waivers]. But this is not one of those cases."

One of the ironies of Bell's situation this spring is that the best part of his game has been his offense (10-for-29, .357), which until now has been suspect. "I really like what I've seen of him at the plate -- especially from the left side," said Robinson. "Last year he was almost an automatic out from that side. Now he's stinging the ball."

The Orioles have spent a lot of time this spring teaching Bell how to play second base. Al Monchak, long recognized as an expert tutor of middle infielders, was brought to camp for the express purpose of working with Bell at that position.

That much has been fine. Bell has performed very well at second (he made two outstanding plays there yesterday), but another irony is that all of his errors have come while playing shortstop.

"He's had his troubles there," said Robinson, "but I'm not concerned about that for two reasons -- because of the guy we got playing there [Cal Ripken] and the fact that it's his natural position.

"It could be that we haven't given him enough work over there [shortstop]. He's spent most of his time at second base, and I think it's just a matter of concentration. A lot of his errors have been careless and while you can't excuse them, I think they can be corrected. He's made a couple because he didn't get the throw to first base -- and one thing you don't have to worry about with him is arm strength."

The throws and angles from the two positions are completely different, which might also explain Bell's tentativeness at shortstop.

Regardless, Robinson did say he wouldn't take Bell back to Baltimore as extra baggage. "He won't just sit," the manager said emphatically. "That wouldn't do anybody any good. We have to keep him sharp, keep his confidence up.

"I'll use him to spell Billy [Ripken] a little, to pinch run and even as a pinch hitter. It wouldn't be bad to have him leading off an inning against a tough righthander, for example."

With Bell virtually assured of a utility job and Robinson on record as saying he would keep only one of the third base candidates (Craig Worthington or Leo Gomez), the other infield spot will go to either Tim Hulett or Jeff McKnight.

Hulett, a righthanded hitter, has the most pop with the bat, but McKnight, a switch-hitter, has better speed and more versatility, having played every position on the field during his professional career.

Hulett also has the most experience at third base, a position it's highly unlikely Bell would be asked to play -- at least at this stage of his career. One new position at a time is enough for a rookie, and Bell can spend whatever spare time there is to polish up his act at shortstop.

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