ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He's going to keep playing shortstop, this season, next season, and maybe long after that. Cal Ripken looks better than ever in the field. "He hasn't lost a step anywhere," Orioles manager Johnny Oates says.
So, what will become of Manny Alexander, the Orioles' shortstop of the future? Alexander, 22, was rated one of the top 10 infield prospects in the minor leagues by Baseball America last season. But the way Ripken is going, he might never play in Baltimore.
Ripken, 32, has started 1,708 consecutive games at shortstop, the longest streak at one position in major-league history. He ranks 10th on the American League list in games at short, 858 behind all-time leader Luis Aparicio.
One can only guess when this will all end. The Orioles want Alexander to spend a full season at Triple-A, so the issue is not yet urgent. But, a year from now, the club must start examining the sensitive issue of whether Alexander will ever displace Ripken.
Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, said last August that Ripken wants to remain at short until his five-year contract expires in 1997. At least one club official believes Ripken's preference is to continue through mid-1995, when he would break Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games.
"I try not to give it much thought," Ripken says when asked how much longer he can play the infield's most trying position. "When and if the day ever comes, hopefully we'll all know it. Right now, it doesn't seem to be a problem. In a lot of ways, it seems to be better."
It's better, because Ripken applies his vast experience like no shortstop before him. His range isn't diminishing, and he keeps gaining knowledge of hitters. Thus, it appears he's covering even more ground, and once he gets to the ball, the rest is automatic.
Chances are, Alexander will never be as good, but who will? The question the Orioles must ultimately confront is if they'd be a better club with Alexander at short and Ripken at third. Ripken also could go to first, but that's a move he probably wouldn't relish.
Alexander might not be ready next season, but he won't need to spend three years in Triple-A waiting for Ripken to catch Gehrig. Oates still doesn't like the way he lays back on grounders, relying on his arm strength to secure outs, but otherwise says he's progressing rapidly.
Alexander batted .259 with two homers and 41 RBI last season at Double-A. He has since added 15 pounds of upper-body strength to his 5-foot-10 frame, but still weighs only 165. His speed is a plus -- Alexander stole 43 bases last season; Ripken has 32 for his major-league career.
Why not move Alexander to second base, where Harold Reynolds is under contract for only one year? Because the Orioles tried that experiment with Juan Bell and Ricky Gutierrez and got mixed results. Why not make Alexander the backup to Ripken? That one is simple -- he'd grow old on the bench.
A trade might seem logical, but the Orioles parted with Bell and Gutierrez to clear a path for Alexander. They'd be foolish to gut the position entirely, especially when the minor-leaguer with the next best chance of replacing Ripken is three years away.
That player isn't even a shortstop -- he's coveted Single-A outfielder Alex Ochoa, whom the Orioles are considering moving back to short, his position in high school. After Ochoa, they'd be down to Juan Bautista, a 17-year-old from Alexander's hometown, San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
Make no mistake, Alexander is the future. This is the last year of Glenn Davis' contract. The Orioles could move third baseman Leo Gomez to first. They could trade Gomez and stick with David Segui. Heck, they could even trade both players, and turn over first to Chris Hoiles.
These things have a way of working themselves out. But unless Ripken's fielding suddenly deteriorates, it will be difficult persuading him to make a change. He moved to third when the Orioles wanted to try Bell in the spring of '89, but that was a trial run, nothing more.
Oates says: "If it makes us a better ballclub, Junior will not have a problem with it. But if it's for the sake of creating a spot for a player, he will." The difference might sound subtle, but as one of the greatest shortstops in the history of the game, Ripken, indeed, deserves a say.
For now, Alexander can hold off consulting Doug DeCinces on how to replace a legend. Ripken is every bit the equal of Brooks Robinson, and he isn't slowing down. Alexander can take comfort knowing that he, too, will be a dynamite shortstop. Someday. Somewhere.