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Closer call: Orioles get reliever in draft


This was not a draft pick for numbers fanatics.

On the surface, the Orioles appear to have committed an error by taking right-handed pitcher Alvie Shepherd as their first-round choice in baseball's summer draft yesterday.

After all, Shepherd's numbers for Nebraska this spring were horrendous. A 2-5 record, 6.57 ERA and 47 hits allowed in 38 innings don't usually excite scouts. But there is a deeper aspect to the story.

Shepherd stands 6 feet 7 and weighs 230 pounds. Baseball America ranked his velocity -- his fastball reaches the high 90s -- No. 1 among available college pitchers. In short, he is a big, strong guy who throws very, very hard. The Orioles figure they can take those natural qualities and polish them to a gloss.

"We liked his size and his fastball, which we also rated the best," said Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels. "We feel good about his arm, the movement on his fastball and his athletic ability. We see him as a potential closer down the road."

The California Angels made another Nebraska player, speedy center fielder Darin Erstad, the first pick in the draft. Erstad batted .410 with 19 homers and 76 RBIs this spring.

Catcher Ben Davis of Malvern (Pa.) Prep, a .514 batter, went to the San Diego Padres as the second pick, and the Seattle Mariners followed by taking center fielder Jose Cruz Jr. from Rice University.

The first pitcher to go was right-hander Kerry Wood, 17, of Grand Prairie (Texas) High, selected by the Chicago Cubs.

The Orioles said that Shepherd's statistics were tainted because he often entered games from another position without sufficient warm-up time. Speaking from his Hillside, Ill., home, Shepherd concurred with that assessment.

"The situation was difficult, being on my feet the whole game," he said. "And it was hard to get enough warm-up time, because coming in to pitch never seemed to be timed right. I couldn't get into the bullpen to loosen up."

Shepherd is a project who will need to learn a greater variety of pitches. As a closer, he basically has depended on blowing hitters away with a high-90s fastball. When he wasn't wild, he was an intimidator. When he was, he was ineffective.

But he also has a chance to play elsewhere if pitching doesn't work out. Nickels said "he is a good hitter, and he can run the bases. That's unusual for a big guy.

"We're looking at his physical skill and potential. If I had to compare him to someone, it would be Todd Worrell, who played the outfield in California and then came in to pitch."

Shepherd hit .343 with 12 home runs and 70 RBIs in 58 games this spring.

When asked about the Orioles, he cited the team's tradition, Camden Yards, Cal Ripken and owner Peter Angelos' stance against replacement players as strong selling points.

"I'm happy about being an Oriole," said Shepherd. "I've been waiting for this for a long time. It's going to be pretty exciting."

Shepherd also has been a starter, but said he likes the idea of closing because "you have to be aggressive and give it all you've got for one inning. You have to be mentally tough.

"I feel I've got one of the best arms in the country," he said. "I've been clocked a couple of times at 98. I think I can get up there even higher."

Nickels said the Orioles were "real tickled" with their second choice, catcher Charles Alley from Palm Beach Lakes (Fla.) High School, who is rated a defensive star although there are questions about his bat.

Others selected were Darrell Dent, an outfielder from Montclair (Calif.) Prep, pitcher Louis Fisher from Fremont High in Oakland and pitcher Luke Hudson from Fountain Valley (Calif.) High.

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