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Will Ochoa be so-so or a Sosa?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sammy Sosa, that's the comparison baseball people make. No wonder the Orioles won't trade Alex Ochoa. The Texas Rangers made that mistake in 1989, giving up a future 30-30 man (Sosa) and a future no-hit pitcher (Wilson Alvarez) for Harold Baines.

Is Ochoa that good? Well, he'll probably never steal 30 bases, and he might never hit 30 homers. But his Triple-A manager, Marv Foley, volunteers the Sosa comparison. And Foley managed Sosa at Triple-A Vancouver in '89 and '91.

"Sammy has gotten a lot stronger than he was then," Foley said yesterday before Rochester's game against the Mets' Triple-A affiliate in Richmond. "If Alex continues to mature physically and mentally, I see him as a Sammy Sosa-type player."

If.

It is the word that follows the name of every top prospect, and it might be the word that ultimately defines Ochoa. Club officials are divided over whether to trade him for Bobby Bonilla. Owner Peter Angelos holds the only vote that matters, and he's saying no.

Thus, the impasse continues, with five days remaining before the July 31 waiver deadline. General manager Roland Hemond said he didn't talk with the Mets' Joe McIlvaine yesterday. Both GMs complained about the publicity surrounding the trade. But the issue remains Ochoa, and only Ochoa.

McIlvaine refused to discuss the status of the deal yesterday, saying, "That has been strictly emanating from Baltimore, and nowhere else. There hasn't been one comment from the Mets' organization. All the noise, all the smoke, is coming from Baltimore, from the owner on down. I have nothing to say."

Hemond chimed in, "I always say when there's no publicity prior to a possible trade, there's a much better chance to execute it. Other clubs get miffed when too much is said. It involves their personnel. It's not good for the player. It's very distracting to the ballclub."

Bonilla's wife, Millie, actually thought he had been traded to the Orioles on Sunday night -- "I said, 'Millie, I would call you first," he said. Obviously, he's a wreck over all this. Last night, he hit his fourth home run in seven games and 18th of the season.

The GMs might despise trade speculation, but they're not above using it to their advantage. Hemond's manager, Phil Regan, spoke publicly about the Orioles' need for another hitter last Friday. Ouch. Coming smack in the middle of the Bonilla talks, it might only have strengthened McIlvaine's resolve.

Still, the holdup is Ochoa, nothing else. Angelos might grow more tempted to land Bonilla with the Orioles only 4 1/2 games behind Boston and Toronto's Joe Carter in a 6-for-56 slump, with no home runs in his last 15 games. But clearly, Ochoa has star potential -- otherwise the Mets wouldn't want him so badly.

As usual, Angelos is sending conflicting signals -- if he wants to win now, he should approve this trade. Then again, his restraint is a good sign. Angelos knows Ochoa can be an inexpensive and productive right fielder for several years. And he knows the Bonilla money might be better spent on other players.

With Bonilla, the Orioles would be committed to approximately $30 million for seven players next season -- and that's before identifying a closer and their four starting pitchers after Mike Mussina. Angelos is willing to spend, but no way could he add a Roberto Alomar or Ron Gant to that high-priced mix.

Besides, the chances of Ochoa becoming an impact player might be just as good as the chances of Bonilla putting the Orioles over the top. Here's a team that frequently plays a rookie catcher, rookie second baseman and rookie center fielder, a team that ranks 11th in the league in runs, a team that still isn't over .500. Can Bonilla make up for all that?

At worst, Ochoa projects as a capable hitter and above-average defensive outfielder. His power is questionable, but he's only 23. Sosa, Bonilla and Mickey Tettleton are three players who never hit 15 homers in a minor-league season, then developed into sluggers. Ochoa, batting .282 with eight homers and 46 RBIs at Rochester, could fall into the same category.

"He's the best right fielder in this league," Foley said. "He's got the best arm I mean, by a mile. He's a plus [above-average] runner. He has some power. He gives you a tough at-bat every time. And he's got a great makeup. I look for that for a guy to be successful in the major leagues. He's a tough kid."

How exceptional is Ochoa's makeup?

"In my reports, the first thing I wrote was, 'he's a coach's dream,' " Foley said. 'He's a great kid, a hard worker, he always has a smile on his face. The way sports has become, this guy, he's a jewel. If all of 'em were like him, there'd be no problems in this game, that's for sure."

How exceptional?

"He has the same kind of personality Bonilla had at the same stage before he got New Yorker-ized," joked Orioles farm director Syd Thrift, the former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager who acquired Bonilla from the Chicago White Sox for Jose DeLeon in 1986.

Thrift first saw Ochoa play in the Arizona Fall League last year, and he detects significant improvement since then -- Ochoa has shortened his swing, and improved his knowledge of the strike zone. The Sosa comparison? Thrift, the Chicago Cubs' assistant GM before coming to Baltimore, sees it, to a point.

"He has an outstanding throwing arm. So does Sosa," Thrift said. "He has outstanding ability to run the bases. So does Sosa. He's a line-drive hitter. Sosa is a bigger swinger -- he swings with more ferocity. This young man is more under control right now than Sosa is at home plate. They're different kinds of hitters."

The argument for trading Ochoa is that the Orioles can't win with him this season, and probably can't win with him next season. Indeed, they probably need to acquire another hitter to ease his transition to the majors. Maybe that hitter is Gant. Maybe it's Alomar. It doesn't necessarily have to be Bonilla.

Some prospects are overrated.

Others are worth the wait.

"Alex is a super kid," Foley said. "He's going to be a super player."

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