ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Play him or trade him. The Orioles should do one or the other with Juan Bell, but for the second straight year, they can't make up their minds.
Bell isn't competing at second base with Bill Ripken, he's battling to keep his utility infielder's job. Make a decision already: The impasse is unfair both to Bell and the club.
The kid is not yet 24. He can't play until he improves. He can't improve until he plays. It's catch-22, baseball style. And, make no mistake, it's the Orioles' own doing.
Is it any wonder Bell is up to his usual tricks this spring, looking lTC brilliant one minute, bewildered the next? He doesn't even know his position anymore, much less his future with the club.
He's a natural shortstop, but he's stuck behind Cal Ripken. He might be the answer at second (Eureka! A switch-hitter with speed!) but with Cal unsigned, no one will unseat Bill.
Paralysis, and more paralysis. If the Orioles won't give Bell a shot at second -- a position he only started playing last season -- then they should just get rid of him. As Bell himself said, "I don't want to be waiting all my life."
Make a decision already.
Forget the Eddie Murray trade.
Just move on.
We all know Bell can't return to the minors without clearing waivers. We all know the Orioles would lose him that way for $25,000. We all know the best solution is a trade.
The Orioles actually were close to making one last July, but according to Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas, they backed out of a proposed deal for lefthander Bruce Ruffin.
Thomas said the trade collapsed after Orioles assistant GM Frank Robinson saw Ruffin pitch. No surprise there: Robinson frowns on soft-throwing lefthanders. You would, too, if you once managed Jeff Ballard.
Anyway, the Phillies later traded Ruffin (4-7, 3.78 in '91) to Milwaukee for another infielder, Dale Sveum. No doubt Ruffin will shut out the Orioles this season, striking out Bell to end the game.
Seriously, the Phillies liked Bell. Thomas said he would have battled Kim Batiste for the starting shortstop's job this spring (Sveum will fortify the Philadelphia infield, along with free agent Mariano Duncan).
"From all indications I'd have to say he could probably play shortstop for somebody every day," Thomas said. "I'm surprised other clubs haven't come and tried to make a deal for him."
Maybe they have. Maybe the Orioles are just afraid. But they carried Bell all last season, and for what? Club officials watched him hit .172 with one homer and 15 RBIs in 209 at-bats. They still don't know if he can play.
The fact is, Bell is in the wrong organization. Not only is Cal Ripken ahead of him, shortstop prospects Ricky Gutierrez and Manny Alexander are behind him. He's simply a poor fit with this club -- even as a utility infielder.
He isn't a natural second baseman like Mark McLemore, or a natural third baseman like Tim Hulett. Those are the infield positions where manager John Oates will substitute in the late innings, hitting for Bill Ripken, running for Leo Gomez.
Hulett makes the team because neither Bell nor McLemore has much experience at third. McLemore deserves to make it because he's a better defensive second baseman than Bell, who was forced to learn that position at the major-league level.
The easiest roster move is with McLemore, who is under Triple-A contract. But the Orioles released Dwight Evans to ensure a spot for David Segui. They're obviously capable of making difficult choices, and that's what they must do with Bell.
"I'm not saying he should be traded," Robinson said. "But he's out of position here. He's done very well to learn it [second base] at this level. But I think if he was able to play shortstop, his development could be more rapid."
This spring he's batting .250 (6-for-24), but he has hit the ball hard at times, especially from the left side. Of course, he took called third strikes three times last weekend in situations where he needed to put the ball in play -- twice with a man on second and none out, once with the bases loaded.
He also remains erratic in the field, but Robinson said that's because he keeps shifting back and forth. Bell played second in the Dominican this winter. But Oates is also using him at short while trying to distribute at-bats evenly this spring.
"If we didn't have a guy named Cal Ripken Jr., we'd just throw Juan out there and say, 'Go play every day,' " Oates said. "You're not going to give up on him. He's not 28 years old. If he was playing every day, he might get more consistent quickly -- if he's ever going to get consistent."
He might not, but who'll ever know?
Play him or trade him.
Make a decision already.