Top pick Powell likely to sign today Pitcher could get $400,000 bonus


The Orioles have called a news conference for today and are expected to announce the signing of their No. 1 draft choice, Mississippi State right-hander Jay Powell.

A 6-foot-4 power pitcher whose fastball has been timed in the mid-90s, Powell was the 19th player selected in last June's amateur draft. Despite a 2-5 record (3.65 ERA), he was ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the country last year by Baseball America.

Doug Melvin, the Orioles' assistant general manager in charge of player development, wouldn't confirm that a signing was imminent, but said negotiations had intensified. "[Scouting director Gary Nickels] is in town, and they've been talking," Melvin said. "I think things have heated up a little bit."

Although none of the top dozen picks has signed yet, most of those taken in the bottom half of the first round have agreed to terms. Powell is expected to agree to a minor-league contract, with a signing bonus in excess of $400,000.

Two days ago, the Minnesota Twins, who had the 20th pick in the draft, signed high-school shortstop Torii Hunter for a reported $450,000, slightly above the average for first-rounders who have signed.

When he signs Powell, 21, will probably start his professional career with either the Single-A Frederick Keys or Double-A Bowie Baysox.

Lineup switch

Manager Johnny Oates made a subtle change in the lineup last night, but it could remain in place as long as the players remain the same.

Jeffrey Hammonds was dropped from the No. 8 spot to the ninth position, trading places with Harold Reynolds. The switch had nothing to do with the production of the two individuals.

"I did it just to keep them [the opposition] from being able to bring in a left-hander to face three straight guys," Oates said.

Reynolds, a switch-hitter, had been followed in the lineup by left-handed hitting Brady Anderson and Mark McLemore, another switch-hitter.

/# Both Reynolds (.297 lefty, .217

righty) and McLemore (.307-.260) have substantially better numbers as left-handed hitters. By dropping the right-handed hitting Hammonds one notch, Oates figures he can keep a potential move to a left-hander from being automatic.

"The other way, it was a no-brainer," Oates said. "If you get by Devo [Mike Devereaux, the third hitter] then you have four out of five."

He was referring to the fact that Harold Baines, another left-handed hitter, follows Devereaux in the lineup.

Leveling off

Hammonds' performance at the major-league level has been about as expected -- and similar to the way he played at two lower classifications this year.

In 18 games, Hammonds has driven in 14 runs and has seven extra-base hits (five doubles, two home runs), but his average has slipped under .300 (to .297) for the first time.

For both Double-A Bowie and the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings earlier in the season, Hammonds started with a rush, leveled off, then settled into a steady groove. He has been through the first stage in the big leagues. Now comes the key part.

"Now, it's just a question of finding his level and maintaining it for a career," Oates said.

Homer haven?

Oates' contention that Oriole Park at Camden Yards is playing shorter this year is backed up by recent home run totals. In the first 19 games this season only 23 homers were hit, but in the past 25 games 66 balls left the park.

With an average of two home runs per game (89 in the first 44 games) Camden Yards would produce 164 homers this season, 16 more than a year ago. However, if the recent pace continues through the rest of the season, the ballpark would yield 187 home runs.

For sake of comparison, in the 38-year history of Memorial Stadium only four times were more than 162 homers hit in a single season. The all-time record, set in 1987, was 235.

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