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O's outfield shift: Hammonds, Anderson, Devo Oates better be right realigning car that was headed stright


SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's Johnny Oates' prerogative to put his three outfielders in new positions and risk disrupting a World Series contender. But now that he's taking his boldest step as Orioles manager, he had better know what he's doing.

Oates said he surveyed nearly a dozen members of the Orioles' major- and minor-league coaching staff, and it was almost unanimous that Brady Anderson should move to center, Jeffrey Hammonds to left and Mike Devereaux to right.

As Oates presented it yesterday, the rationale for the new alignment sounded perfectly logical. Anderson is the club's best center fielder. Hammonds is more comfortable in left if he can't play center. Devereaux is more comfortable in right than in left.

Still, Oates took a 180-degree turn from his public remarks on Wednesday, when he indicated Devereaux would remain in center. What changed his mind? The hours of meetings with the coaches, which led to a more thorough consideration of Hammonds.

Oates wouldn't have made this decision if he didn't believe Anderson was markedly better than Devereaux in center. And he wouldn't have made it if Hammonds hadn't been so uncomfortable last season playing right for the first time.

It's the big picture that's important. Hammonds wasn't going to be in right, and he wasn't going to be in center. Oates' growing realization that left was the rookie's most logical position helped persuade him to make the move.

The question now is how Devereaux will respond. He rightly views the change as a demotion. But Oates went out of character to predict, "he's going to have a monster year -- it takes little things like this to fire people up."

Oates' wish had better come true, because Peter Angelos is watching. There's no way Devereaux can still feel wanted by this team. First, Anderson gets a three-year contract, and now, he gets to play center. Heck, Oates went so far as to say the move would help Devereaux in the free-agent market.

In Oates' opinion, three teams might want Devereaux to play center, and three others might want him to play right, so he's doubling his options. The manager's sales pitch was so fervent, maybe Devereaux should hire him as his agent.

Let's see how Oates reacts after Sam Horn goes first to third on a single to right. All right, that's stretching it, but Devereaux's arm is so weak, a speedy player such as Devon White will take an extra base on Devereaux as casually as if he were on an evening stroll.

True, Mark McLemore made a successful transition from second base to right last season, but his arm is better than Devereaux's. The last time Devereaux played right was in 1989. The last time he played it regularly was in rookie ball.

"Another manager a long time ago moved a guy from third base to shortstop and it turned out OK," Oates said, referring to Earl Weaver's handling of Cal Ripken. "We made the move last year with McLemore and it turned out OK."

Fair enough, and if Devereaux hits the cutoff man, everything might turn out fine. Hammonds' health was a critical element in this decision. After watching him for nearly a week, Oates said, "I'm satisfied now that I can start counting on him."

But not in right field. Oates acknowledged for the first time yesterday the club "wasn't very happy" with Hammonds in his nine starts in right last season. "Jeffrey made a few mistakes," Oates said. "It was evident he was uncomfortable."

Hammonds did not dispute his manager. "I looked at right field as a challenge," he said. "I didn't stress to Johnny that I was uncomfortable. But the first time you do anything, it's going to be new to you. I was not used to it. I did not practice right field in the minor leagues."

Hammonds simply did what was asked and tried his best, but Oates said Rochester manager Bob Miscik and minor-league outfield instructor Reid Nichols emphasized that he was not a right fielder. Miscik also said that Hammonds was better in left than he was in center.

When Devereaux told Oates he preferred right to left, the entire picture began to take shape. Of all the possible combinations, Oates said, this is the strongest alignment. He easily could be right, as long as Devereaux doesn't go into a funk.

Then again, Oates never would have made the switch if he thought it would leave Devereaux demoralized. "He was very positive," Oates said. "Both guys said the exact same thing. Both said, 'I'm your best center fielder.' And both said, 'I'll do what's best for the ballclub.' "

It's the manager's job to make such determinations, and yesterday Oates chose to shuffle an outfield that did not necessarily require shuffling. The Orioles are too good to start messing up. Johnny Oates had better know what he's doing.

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