1/8 TC SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's a familiar story, but one that promises to heat up earlier than usual this year.
The Orioles are faced with a numbers problem, and the crunch is particularly noticeable in the outfield. Manager John Oates says there might not be room for more than four full-time outfielders and, if somebody doesn't step up and claim the leadoff spot in the lineup, it could create a ripple effect.
Right in the middle of the early speculation, once again, are infielder Juan Bell and outfielder Brady Anderson. Both will be on the bubble during this training camp, and Bell's future with the Orioles could hinge on the final makeup of the outfield.
"Ideally, you'd like to have two backup infielders," said Oates. "But that would leave room for only four outfielders."
With Mike Devereaux and Joe Orsulak assured spots, that leaves Anderson, Luis Mercedes, Chito Martinez and Darrell Sherman to compete for the other two spots on the roster. And it's hard to imagine Martinez, who hit 13 home runs with the Orioles after hitting 20 at Rochester, not fitting into the picture.
Anderson, Mercedes and Sherman fit the mold of leadoff hitters, with Anderson the most versatile of the three. For the last three years, the Orioles have expressed the hope that his talent would blossom, but each time they have been disappointed.
Still, Oates stops short of saying this is a make-or-break camp for Anderson, 28. "There's nothing I'd like better than to see him come in here and take that [leadoff] job," said Oates. "I'd like to see him steal 50 bases. There are a lot of things you can do with Brady."
For the last two years, Devereaux has been the primary leadoff hitter, but his .313 on-base percentage falls below expectations for that spot in the batting order. As a No. 6 or No. 7 hitter, Devereaux might be expected to hit 15-to-20 home runs and drive in 70-to-80 runs, and Oates would prefer to bat him down in the order.
In order to do that, either Anderson, Mercedes or Sherman, a long shot coming out of Double-A ball after being drafted from San Diego last winter, has to qualify as the leadoff hitter.
"You'd like to have somebody who gets on base 40 percent of the time, but 35-to-38 percent would be acceptable," said Oates.
A year ago, Anderson hit only .230 after a strong finish and had a .330 on-base percentage in 294 plate appearances. To reach Oates' 38 percent performance level, Anderson would have to find a way to get on base 28 more times over the course of the season.
Since that means getting on base barely more than one extra time a week, it's easy to see why the Orioles are reluctant to give up on Anderson. The fact that he also is an excellent defensive performer is one more reason why Oates might have to sacrifice a spare infielder rather than an outfielder.
"We don't know what's going to happen with Mercedes, either," said Oates. "We're going to have to make up our minds about him this spring."
When it comes to defense and stealing bases, Mercedes is a distant second to Anderson, but he does have a penchant for getting on base. He had a glowing .433 on-base percentage at Triple-A Rochester last year. If he continues to show the ability to get on base, he could win the job -- with Anderson most likely relegated to a backup role again.
The outfield-infield logjam is a result of the domino-effect of the abundance of first basemen/designated hitters. Oates remains committed to David Segui as a bona fide major-league hitter and wants Dwight Evans as a situational player. With Randy Milligan and Sam Horn jostling for at-bats in the DH role, both Segui and Evans will play some in the outfield.
"I was very satisfied with the way David performed out there last year," said Oates. "He doesn't have good speed, but he catches the ball and has an accurate arm that is strong enough.
"But there's no question that we have to make some tough decisions down here. We've got to see as much as we can of Sherman, because I don't really know much about him.
"What I'm hoping is that one of these guys can make it easy on me by just going out and winning the [leadoff] job. I just hope we don't have two guys play even."
Without any Triple-A experience, it would appear that Sherman's chances are slim. But if his defense is sound, his speed could earn him a roster spot, depending on how many infielders Oates decides to keep.
Barring injury, Tim Hulett is a lock to back up third baseman Leo Gomez and second baseman Bill Ripken. Since Oates figures to do little maneuvering in the infield, except for occasionally pinch-hitting for Ripken, it would seem the Orioles could go with only one spare infielder.
Which brings us back to Bell. Unless he can win the second base job, another long shot, his value to the club will be as questionable as it was last year.
The Orioles remain convinced that Bell is a big-league talent, but they have been unable to entice any reasonable offers for him, and they are afraid he will be claimed on waivers if they try to send him back to the minor leagues.
But this could be the year that they are forced into making an irrevocable decision and either make the best possible deal or risk losing him.