Hammonds' time shouldn't be now


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Orioles do not have many decisions to make this spring, tough or otherwise. Fifth starter. Backup catcher. Last spot in the bullpen. That's about it. The fact is it's a pretty solid, self-assured club.

There is a chance, though, that one decision never anticipated might grow into a monster, the biggest of the spring: What if Jeffrey Hammonds is the best right fielder in camp?

It doesn't make sense. Last year's top draft pick never has played a pro game. He is on the 40-man roster only because it was a contract demand to which the Orioles reluctantly agreed. From his first February swing, he was postmarked for Double-A Bowie.

But he has made a startling impression. How startling?

Listen: "He's ready to play the outfield up here right now," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "He'd be terrific. Put him out there with Brady and Devo and they'd be running into each other, they'd cover so much ground."

And: "So far," Robinson continued, "he is not overmatched at the plate. Not at all."

One more time: "He might be the best right-field candidate we've got right now," manager Johnny Oates said. "But it might not be best for the organization for him to be [an Oriole] right now."

What that means, of course, is that they're afraid of rushing the kid. Understandably. They went down that base path with Ben McDonald, and wound up with a strawberry. It's a cautionary tale if ever there was one.

"But every case is going to be different," Oates said. "You have to take it case by case."

The case here is as follows: Just because the Orioles' eyes don't sparkle at the idea of their penciled-in right-field platoon of Chito Martinez and Luis Mercedes, does that mean they should gamble with a precious new resource?

The answer is no.

In the first place, it's still much too early in the spring to judge whether Hammonds, or any young player, is truly fit for the bigs. The Orioles certainly understand that.

"History is full of kids who looked great this time of year," Robinson said, "and then stopped producing when the regular players started getting serious toward the end of spring. Talk to me in three weeks."

And even if Hammonds is still producing in three weeks, the club still should send him down for at least a year to let him learn about professional curveballs and other assorted mysteries of the game.

"No matter what happens in the spring, it's a tremendous difference going from college ball to the major leagues," Robinson said. "You're asking an awful lot. I'm not saying it's too much for him. But it's asking an awful lot."

Why ask? Why make him learn the basics in front of 45,000 people every night? Let him do it in Harrisburg and Albany and New Britain.

Learn from the example of Mike Mussina's career. Be patient. Bring him up only when there's nothing left for him to learn down there.

That's never going to be the popular position, of course. It's always going to be tempting to put an exciting young player on the field and see what happens. Who isn't seduced by the concept of a phenom? Why, he might just deliver a pennant.

It gets even harder to advocate the slow go after listening to Robinson's assessment of Hammonds.

"You can't help getting excited," he said. "He reminds me of a Rickey Henderson-type player. We haven't even seen his game here yet. Haven't scratched the surface. He's a terrific bunter and base stealer. He has outstanding bat speed. The ball jumps off his bat. He's going to hit home runs. His defense is excellent. There's nothing not to like. It certainly wasn't a hard pick to make."

Said Oates: "My wife could have made that pick."

You will never hear them gushing similarly about Martinez or Mercedes. They can contribute, but it's different. They're penciled in only because the club was being sold in the off-season and did not invest some of its Camden Yards riches in the free agent that belonged out there.

In any case, now Hammonds has them thinking about another alternative. It's certainly tempting. They could use his defense, bat him ninth and tell him not to press, that it was a free year at the plate. Not the worst idea. But not the right idea.

Hammonds is a special player, and he'll be that much more special down the line if he isn't asked to produce in the crucible of the major leagues while still making the adjustment from aluminum bats, for crying out loud. Give him a break. Give him a year. And then enjoy him.

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