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Hope springs eternal for a leadoff man

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here are some of the spring subplots that will be played out during the six weeks the Orioles will spend in Sarasota, Fla., and at their temporary Grapefruit League home in St. Petersburg:

Who will lead?

The Orioles have been looking for a true leadoff hitter since Al Bumbry played his last season in 1984. The search will continue this spring, with prospects Luis Mercedes and Darrell Sherman each hoping to convince manager John Oates that he can do the job.

Mercedes made a good first impression with his aggressive play last spring and just won a batting title in winter ball. He'll get every opportunity to prove himself, but the club chose Sherman in the Rule V draft to make things more interesting.

Sherman has to make the major-league club or be offered back to the San Diego Padres for half of the $50,000 draft price. The Orioles may be banking that the Padres are too deep in the outfield to ask for him back, but he'll get a legitimate look during the next several weeks.

If neither emerges, Mike Devereaux likely will win the leadoff role by default. He hit 19 home runs last year and might be better-suited to a place deeper in the lineup, but he has shown he can be an effective leadoff man.

"I'm really not that concerned with the leadoff role," Oates said. "We're going to put three or four guys out there and see what they can do. Devereaux. Brady Anderson. Mercedes. Sherman. We'll give them all a chance to play. We'll also give Devo a chance to hit deeper in the lineup."

What about Randy?

No one figured on Randy Milligan's being around when spring training opens, but the club had no success moving him at the winter meetings.

"I thought I was gone," Milligan said. "I'm kind of surprised, but I've been through this before. The last week of spring training, I'll probably be traded."

He has stopped short of endorsing the concept, but Milligan concedes that it might be in his -- and the team's -- best interest to go to a club that will play him every day.

"My playing time here is uncertain," he said. "I'm not going to play the outfield, and Glenn is healthy and Sam Horn is here, so my playing time is going to be diminished. I like this club and I like this town, but I am in this business to play.

"I'm definitely not on the downside of my career. These are probably my best years. I don't want to waste them sitting on the bench."

Orioles officials insist that they do not have to trade Milligan, 30, but it seems obvious that someone will have to go. Horn had 23 home runs and 61 RBI in a part-time DH role last year. Dwight Evans needs at-bats, as do several other platoon outfielders. Milligan obviously would be more valuable to the team as the trade bait that might bring them help in another area.

The eye of the Storm

The outlook for 1992 depends largely on the refurbished starting rotation, which collapsed last year under the weight of injuries and inflated expectations.

General manager Roland Hemond traded catcher Bob Melvin to the Kansas City Royals for Storm Davis, and the Orioles signed free agent Rick Sutcliffe to a one-year contract

worth $1.2 million and incentives. The club also added journeyman left-hander Dennis Rasmussen and right-hander Eric Hetzel to the mix, hoping that quantity will equal quality over the course of a long season.

"We do have more depth than we've had," Oates said. "We have more guys who have a chance of getting big-league hitters out."

The Orioles, however, are traveling to Florida under the assumption that promising Mike Mussina will pick up right where he left off last year, when he came up and pitched impressively in the second half. They made the same assumption with Ben McDonald and Jose Mesa a year ago and it turned out to be a mistake. The steadiest pitcher on the club was Bob Milacki, who won 10 games. Hemond remains optimistic nonetheless.

"Very much so," he said. "We're pleased to have added Sutcliffe and Davis and the young players continue to mature and improve."

Louisiana lightning

McDonald was supposed to be the can't-miss prospect of the decade when he was the first player chosen in the June 1989 draft, but his first two full years of professional baseball have been something less than a dream date with destiny.

Injuries delayed his entry into the Orioles' starting rotation for half a season in 1990, then turned 1991 into a nightmare. McDonald battled elbow and shoulder soreness all year and finished with a 6-8 record and an inflated 4.84 ERA. Now, he must prove that his arm is healthy and his mental approach is sound.

"Sometimes you have an inclination or a feeling," Oates said. "I have a feeling we're going to have a good year out of Ben. He has been working very hard and making a lot of sacrifices."

It will be up to the Orioles coaching staff to keep him on a tight rein this spring. McDonald has hurt himself during spring training in each of the past two seasons, probably as a result of doing too much too soon.

Some relief in sight

The bullpen is the one area where they Orioles seem to have their act together. Stopper Gregg Olson wasn't thrilled with his performance last year, but he saved 31 games and got help from a surprisingly dependable supporting staff.

Right-hander Todd Frohwirth, who was signed out of the Philadelphia Phillies' organization as a minor-league free agent before spring training, was one of the most effective relievers in the game, compiling a 7-3 record and a 1.87 ERA. Left-hander Mike Flanagan came back from nearly a year on the sidelines to appear in 64 games and finish with an impressive 2.38 ERA. Newcomer Jim Poole also pitched impressively to establish himself at the major-league level.

The only exception was right-hander Mark Williamson, who struggled to a 5-5 record and a 4.48 ERA. But he apparently is healthy again and hoping to prove he is the same pitcher who was a combined 18-7 the previous two seasons.

Olson has been one of the most effective relievers in the game since he arrived in the major leagues to stay in 1989, but he had trouble living up to the high standards he set for himself last year.

"Personally, I didn't like the way last season went for the team and for myself," Olson said. "I'm ready to get it going and start fresh."

3' In five days, he will get his wish.

Who's new this spring?

Coaches

Davey Lopes, base running, dugout

Manager John Oates made no secret of his desire to hire a coach who could impart some firsthand knowledge of the art of base running, and he couldn't have hoped for anyone more qualified than former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Lopes. Lopes twice led the National League in stolen bases and ranks 24th all-time with 557 career steals. During the regular season, Lopes will be the dugout coach, a position he held the past three years with the Texas Rangers.

Greg Biagini, hitting, first base

Biagini has worked his way through the Orioles' minor-league system to earn his first major-league coaching job. He has played an integral role in the club's youth movement as manager of the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. Now, the team hopes that he will continue to be a positive influence in his new dual role as hitting and first-base coach.

Dick Bosman, pitching

Three years as pitching coach at Rochester prepared Bosman to move into the major-league job when the club decided to replace Al Jackson at the end of the disappointing 1991 season. He had worked extensively with pitching prospects Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina. He also was familiar with Bob Milacki and Gregg Olson. But he still has his work cut out for him as the Orioles enter a season in which pitching will determine whether they can compete in the AL East.

Players

Storm Davis, pitcher

The Orioles traded catcher Bob Melvin to the Kansas City Royals bring Davis back to Baltimore, where he began his major-league career in 1982. He has struggled the past couple of years (a combined 10-19 in 1990-91) after peaking with a 19-victory season for the Oakland Athletics in 1989. He'll get every opportunity to make the starting rotation, but he'll need more than a couple of positive 1991 scouting reports to get back to the way he pitched in Oakland.

Rick Dempsey, catcher

Hardly a new face to Orioles fans, Dempsey was a crowd favorite until he became a free agent after refusing to become a backup to Terry Kennedy. He signed with the Cleveland Indians after the 1986 season. He went on to play three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and spent last year with the Milwaukee Brewers before accepting an invitation to go to spring training with the Orioles. He's 42, he's a non-roster invitee and he's been written off more than once, but he appears to have an excellent chance to make the club in a backup role.

Eric Hetzel, pitcher

In an attempt to further deepen the starting rotation, the Orioles signed Hetzel out of the Boston Red Sox organization as a six-year minor-league free agent. He was 9-5 last year for the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox and is a combined 25-24 in four seasons at the Class AAA level. He is a combined 3-7 in two brief stays at the major-league level.

Dennis Rasmussen, pitcher

The club took advantage of the suddenly soft free-agent market to persuade this veteran left-hander to accept a minor-league contract and a non-roster invitation to training camp. Rasmussen is coming off two losing seasons with the San Diego Padres, but his 6-13 record is deceiving. Last year's 3.74 ERA would have ranked second only to Mike Mussina's on the Orioles' staff. The club does not have a left-hander targeted for the starting rotation, so Rasmussen is in a position to move right in if any of the front-line five falter.

Darrell Sherman, outfielder

The Orioles picked up Sherman from the San Diego Padres organization in December's Rule V draft, which means they have to keep him in the major leagues or offer him back to the Padres for half of the $50,000 draft price. He is a fleet outfielder, who will come to camp to compete for the leadoff role, but he's very much a long shot despite impressive stolen-base totals at each minor-league level.

Rick Sutcliffe, pitcher

Sutcliffe was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1979. He won the NL Cy Young Award in 1984. He was one of the most successful pitchers of the 1980s. Now, he is trying to prove that he still can perform after missing much of the past two seasons with shoulder problems. He came back from surgery to finish the 1991 season with a flourish, going 4-1 in his final 10 starts for the Chicago Cubs. The Orioles were confident enough in his physical condition to guarantee him $1.2 million for the 1992 season. He can't guarantee anything yet, but if he's right, he'll make a difference.

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