The Orioles want lefthander Joe Price to undergo a medical test for his back before deciding whether to pick up the option NTC year on his contract. Their request was not warmly received.
Price, 33, pitched the entire second half with a bulging disc, and he said yesterday he should be judged by his performance, not an injury that has no effect on the way he throws.
Both Price and his agent, Joe Bick, indicated he might refuse a Magnetic Resonance Imaging test, forcing the Orioles into a corner that likely would result in him becoming a free agent.
The club has until Oct. 20 to renew Price's contract, valued at $400,000 for 1991. Roland Hemond said yesterday he wants Price to undergo an MRI simply to confirm that he is sound.
"We're going to be checking it further, just to be sure," Hemond said. "You have to have some concern until you're satisfied he's OK."
Price, however, believes he proved as much after coming off the 15-day disabled list July 15. He said he does not object to the MRI, but was baffled that the Orioles' decision might be contingent on its results.
The club probably would decline his option year if he refuses to take the test, and given the shortage of lefthanded relievers, Price likely could receive a better contract from another team.
Price, a 10-year veteran, said money is not a dominant issue at this stage of his career. He said his wife LeeAnn and two children enjoy Baltimore. "For the sake of continuity," he said, "I'd like to be back."
It appears he is deserving: Price allowed only nine of his 50 inherited runners to score this season (18 percent). The rest of the Orioles' bullpen allowed 31 percent. The league average was 33 percent.
In fact, the bigger question might be the identity of the other lefthanded reliever next year. Kevin Hickey filled that spot in the first half, Jeff Ballard in the second. But manager Frank Robinson has said he wants to add a hard thrower, probably someone like the Yankees' Greg Cadaret.
Hickey's fastball reaches 90 mph on the radar gun, but the Orioles do not believe he can maintain that velocity for more than one inning. Ballard, meanwhile, will again be a candidate for the starting rotation next spring.
Price does not throw especially hard, but his departure would create a void -- unless the club is seriously considering the promotion of top prospect Arthur Rhodes, who split the year between Class A and Double A.
"Joe (Bick) is going to talk to Roland and see exactly what's going on," Price said after returning home to San Diego yesterday . "If the whole option depends on my MRI showing up any better, that would tell me that the whole second half I pitched was a waste.
"All I know is the way I feel. The specialist told me a bulging disc doesn't heal itself, it's just something you have to deal with. How much does it have to improve for them to pick up my option? I don't know."
Bick said, "Joe spent the whole second half showing that he was healthy. The number of innings he had, as effective as he was, I certainly feel that issue should have been clarified.
"It's just the principle of the matter. We feel the decision should be based on Joe's performance. And we feel his performance was a very effective one."
Price finished 3-4 with a 3.58 earned run average in 50 appearances, his most since 1982. Still, his back landed him on ** the disabled list from June 29 to July 15. Price pitched nearly half of his 65 1/3 innings after returning. His ERA was 2.88 before the injury, 4.35 after.
The latter number, however, was inflated by two poor outings in which he allowed eight runs in five innings. "He pitched OK," Hemond said. "He did a satisfactory job. He played his role very well."
Robinson said he does not suspect that Price is still hurt, but added "we're perfectly within our grounds to have him checked again." Price did not pitch the final 17 days, "primarily" because of his back, Hemond said.
Price disputes that assessment, claiming he had an inflamed shoulder part of that time, nothing more. In fact, he said he made a point of telling Robinson he was available for the final series against Toronto.
"Whether my disc has gotten better or worse, the fact of the matter is, it doesn't bother me when I pitch," Price said. "If there was something wrong with my back, I couldn't have hid it. The way it was when I was hurt, I couldn't walk without a limp."