The Orioles didn't want to rush Jeffrey Hammonds, but now there's no turning back. Hammonds hit a home run in his first exhibition game, his first Triple-A game and his first major-league start.
What does that spell, class?
No one told Mozart to hold off on the symphonies. No one told Michael Jackson to hold off on the hit records. And no one is going to tell Jeffrey Hammonds, "Sorry, you're going back to Rochester."
So, what should the Orioles do with Mark McLemore when Brady Anderson comes off the disabled list?
It's very simple.
Turn him into Tony Phillips.
Give him three starts a week in right field, two at second base and two at third.
McLemore deserves to stay in the lineup, and Hammonds deserves to stay in Baltimore 15 years, not 15 days.
Obviously, manager Johnny Oates can't play four outfielders. Something must give when Anderson returns, and the only flexible position is third, where Leo Gomez is in a six-week slump that is jeopardizing his Orioles career.
Ideally, McLemore would replace Gomez full time, and Hammonds would remain in the outfield with Anderson and Mike Devereaux, giving the Orioles their most dynamic lineup in years, featuring five regulars with speed.
But Oates isn't biting.
"It has been discussed," Oates said of playing McLemore at third. "But we want to be as strong as possible defensively. I don't have that good feeling about him at third like I do about him in right field."
Oates' concern is McLemore's arm. An outfielder winds up to throw, often after a running start. A third baseman throws from a set position -- except on slow rollers and bunts, when he's off balance.
Then again, McLemore occasionally played third in California, and Oates tried him there in the spring of '92. His arm is stronger than it was at the start of this season, because of all his outfield work.
The bigger question might be whether McLemore can make the necessary reactions. In right field, he's better than Luis Mercedes and Chito Martinez. But at third, he wouldn't be as good as Gomez, or the best defensive option, Tim Hulett.
Fair enough, but for two days a week, Oates could settle for it -unless he's willing to demote Hammonds, a move that would make sense only if the phenom enters a prolonged slump like Damon Buford.
Are you kidding?
Hammonds isn't going anywhere -- not to Rochester, and not to the bench. "That kid is not going to sit," one club official insisted. Hammonds has fewer than 300 professional at-bats. He needs to play.
Juggling McLemore would be a challenge for Oates, but the situation would be manageable, and in the long run, best for the team. Devereaux and Anderson would get days off against pitchers who give them trouble. Oates also could rest second baseman Harold Reynolds when he desires.
Think about it: Hammonds, Devereaux and the switch-hitting McLemore could play against left-handers, Anderson could replace McLemore against right-handers. On days Oates wanted start Anderson against a lefty, McLemore could play second or third base.
The risk is tampering with success -- McLemore might suffer offensively if he's disrupted defensively, shifting back and forth between positions. The concern is valid, but Oates need not worry. He can simply play whoever is hot.
Why not make a trade? Because it's too early. A year from now, Hammonds will be more established, Anderson and Devereaux will be potential free agents and the Orioles will be in an even greater position of strength.
Buford's hitting is still in question, but he might be the best center fielder in the entire group. Mark Smith is batting .300 at Rochester. And Class-A Frederick's Alex Ochoa and Curtis Goodwin are emerging as legitimate outfield prospects.
Ochoa had eight homers and 47 RBI in his first 300 at-bats this season, and possesses the strongest arm in the organization. Goodwin is the leading base stealer among Orioles minor leaguers, with 42 successes in 53 attempts.
Neither will be ready before 1996, but you get the idea. Both Anderson and Devereaux will be 30 next Opening Day, and both might command $5 million salaries as free agents. Trading one will seem entirely logical -- when the time is right.
For now, the Orioles face the type of problem good teams love, the type of problem good managers work to their advantage.
Too many players?