ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- So much for the idea of platooning Chito Martinez and Luis Mercedes in right field. Mark Leonard is the latest entry into the right-field derby, and the way this bizarre race is evolving, Sugar Ray Leonard might be next.
Mark Leonard turns 29 in August, and his major-league experience consists of 274 at-bats. But with two weeks left in spring training, the Orioles believe he might actually beat out Martinez, another left-handed hitter who is the leading candidate for the job.
"We've been coveting Leonard for some time," general manager Roland Hemond said.
Barry Bonds, you covet.
Leonard, you swallow.
The Orioles acquired this budding Ty Cobb for Steve Scarsone, a utility infielder who has been traded twice in eight months.
If Leonard is so good, why didn't the Giants keep him? It's not like they're loaded with quality outfielders. Bonds hit more homers last season (34) than their entire outfield combined (27).
Meanwhile, the Orioles feature eight potential right fielders -- Leonard, Martinez and Mercedes, plus Harold Baines, David Segui, Sherman Obando, Jack Voigt and Mark McLemore, an infielder who needed only four weeks to become the best defensive player in the group.
No wonder the club is so tempted with Jeffrey Hammonds. Leonard is a .319 career hitter in the minors, but he spent most of the past three seasons in the Pacific Coast League, where statistics are always inflated. Defensively, no one will confuse him with Dwight Evans.
Say, is Evans still retired?
Martinez, batting .208 with a club-high eight RBI, remains the favorite to start Opening Day, and he reacted to yesterday's news with a shrug. "Why should I be [worried]?" he asked. "I'll let them make those choices. I just play."
Mercedes is another story. The Orioles will trade him for the next available ball bag, and he can sense he's in trouble. Yesterday, he met with assistant general manager Frank Robinson. Robinson then met with Hemond and assistant GM Doug Melvin.
Mercedes said he spoke with Robinson about his sore left ankle, which limited him to six innings Friday. Robinson and club president Larry Lucchino are his primary backers in the organization. Nearly every other club official is skeptical, despite his .317 average in five minor-league seasons.
"What do I have to do to make the big leagues?" Mercedes asked. "I've done everything I can in this organization. I feel so sad about it. When I signed [in 1987], I had it in my mind to make the big leagues. I just tried hard, tried hard.
"But when it's time to get there, people don't see the good things I do. They don't appreciate what I do. They don't trust what I can do. I've had too many good years in this organization. I feel sad. I do well, but I don't see the reward."
To be sure, Mercedes creates many of his own problems with his erratic base running and shaky outfield play. On Wednesday, he got doubled off first base on a line drive to center. On Friday, he nearly decapitated Mike Devereaux while making a routine catch in right.
Still, Mercedes would be the third Dominican the Orioles have traded in the past nine months, after pitcher Jose Mesa and shortstop Juan Bell. A strong case could be made against each, but Dominican scout Carlos Bernhardt is wasting his time if his players aren't given a chance to succeed.
"He always tells me that he's ready to play in the major leagues," Bernhardt said. "He says all they have to do is check his numbers in the minor leagues, and see who has those numbers."
Asked if he believes the club dislikes him, Mercedes said, "I can't comment on that. One day, someplace, I want to play in the big leagues. After I play in the big leagues and maybe have a good year, maybe I'll talk about it. But for now, no comment. I can't say anything."
Whatever his thoughts, Mercedes said the problem is not manager Johnny Oates. "He's really nice to me," Mercedes said. "I can't say anything bad about Johnny. No matter where I go, I'll say he's a nice guy. He's an honest person."
Mercedes said he would prefer to stay with the Orioles, but more than anything, he wants to play. The addition of Leonard only sinks him lower on the depth chart. It's becoming almost impossible to picture him in an Orioles uniform on Opening Day.
Eight right fielders, and counting.
One more, and we've got a whole team.