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A Demotion for Offerman : Dodgers: Starting shortstop is sent to Albuquerque. Defensive specialist Bournigal is called up to replace him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a surprising move, the Dodgers sent Jose Offerman to the club’s triple-A team in Albuquerque on Monday and recalled Rafael Bournigal, the best defensive shortstop in the club’s farm system.

It was a gutty move by Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president, who has long been criticized for handing Offerman the starting shortstop job at the end of the 1991 season and staying with him, despite his defensive shortcomings. But Claire, who says he has not given up on Offerman, said the move was not precipitated by Offerman’s defense, which has improved considerably, but by his season-long struggles at the plate.

“I think that a step backward can help in moving forward,” Claire said. “There are some things that Jose can benefit by with some time that will help him and his approach to hitting, and help him be the type of hitter he should be. And his fielding also, he has made improvement, but there are some things we talked about today that he can work on down there.”

Offerman, who will report to Albuquerque on Thursday, was batting .210 with eight doubles, four triples, one home run, 25 runs batted in, two stolen bases, 38 walks and 38 strikeouts in 243 at-bats. Bournigal, 27, batted .332 at Albuquerque, with eight doubles, one home run and 22 RBIs, and struck out nine times in 208 at-bats.

Bournigal made the team in spring training but was sent to Albuquerque shortly after the season started.

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“Whether it will be 10 days or two weeks, you can’t predict the future,” Claire said of the demotion. “I hope Bournigal, just like I hope Jose, can contribute to this ballclub. Rafael’s strength is certainly his defense, but for Jose, this is just part of a story of a career.

“Rafael doesn’t have the strength to drive the ball like Jose, but one of his assets is that he doesn’t strike out much. We got him primarily for his defense, that is his game.

“When you send a player down, they must spend 10 days unless there is an injury. You can never predict what will happen, but in Jose we hope he can continue to contribute to this club. I don’t think there is anybody on this team or in the organization who doesn’t want Jose to succeed.”

During the team’s last trip, to San Diego and Houston, Claire began discussing the move with Manager Tom Lasorda and his coaches. Offerman, 25, batted .193 in April and .213 in May.

“I’d say he was surprised, but he was very professional about it,” Claire said.

Offerman batted .269 last season with 21 doubles, 62 RBIs, 77 runs, 151 hits and 30 stolen bases. But he made 79 errors over the last two seasons and was privately criticized for mental lapses in the field.

Offerman bulked up last winter, worked hard on his defense in winter ball and came back a steadier fielder. He has committed only eight errors this season, compared with 17 after the same number of games last season.

But he has been frustrated at the plate, and in one game threw a tantrum in the dugout after Lasorda asked him to sacrifice with the pitcher on deck. That incident, on national TV, brought him under disciplinary action by the club, and he was subsequently benched for three games.

“I have already passed too (many things) in Los Angeles and I don’t know that anything that happens is going to affect me anymore,” Offerman said at the time.

But Claire said that incident had nothing to do with sending Offerman to Albuquerque. He also acknowledged that Offerman had survived this long in the majors because of his bat.

“The fact that his bat was working helped him stay,” Claire said. “His RBI totals were certainly respectable, hitting in the spot he is. But he is a much better hitter than what he has shown us. We talked about how he needs to use the whole field, hitting it more on the line and utilizing his speed.”

Lasorda, who has been without a backup shortstop this season, said the move was warranted.

“I think that is best for him right now, for him to go down and get some things worked out, " Lasorda said. “He’s got to get his batting stroke back and he’s got to raise his confidence level again.”

Bournigal, who took over at shortstop for the Giants’ series, arrived Sunday night. He acknowledged that he was excited.

“But I think I’m ready,” the 27-year-old native of the Dominican Republic said. “I hit over .300 and I think I can help the Dodgers.”

Most of the Dodgers expressed surprise that Offerman was sent down.

“It certainly was unexpected,” third baseman Tim Wallach said. “But maybe it will help him. Jose is a good kid and he just needs to get settled.”

Coach Bill Russell said Offerman showed improvement in his fielding, but he needs work on his hitting.

As for Bournigal, Russell said, “Even though he hit at Albuquerque, we didn’t bring Bournigal here for his bat. He can go get the ball with the best of them.”

Times staff writer Dan Hafner contributed to this story.


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