The Baltimore Orioles have decided not to exercise their contract option on reliever Joe Price, whose physical condition had become a point of contention at the end of the 1990 season.
The club had until Saturday to extend Price's contract through the 1991 season at a base salary of $400,000, but notified him late Saturday night that his services would not be retained.
Price spent time on the disabled list in late June and early July with a bulging disk in his lower back. He came back to pitch effectively down the stretch, but the club asked him to undergo an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to determine the extent of the injury before making a decision on the contract option.
The results of that test apparently convinced the Orioles front office that it should pass on Price, who had a 3-4 record and 3.58 ERA in 50 games, all in relief.
"We've had some concerns," general manager Roland Hemond said. "I don't want to get into the medical details out of fairness to Joe. But we've also got some young players we need to add to our [40-man] roster."
Price expressed disappointment at the club's decision. He had indicated at season's end that he wanted to return to the Orioles, and said he never expected the club to make an issue of the back injury.
"I'm surprised," he said. "I would be totally surprised if I hadn't talked to Roland at the end of the season. Nothing had been said about my back until that point."
Now, Price is concerned that his dismissal by the Orioles will have an effect on his ability to sign with another club.
"Rumors are going to get around that they let me go because of my back," he said. "Roland said their doctors said I am a walking time bomb. I just don't buy that. I pitched 30 games after I came off the disabled list. I play three to five rounds of golf a week, and I walk the course half the time."
The onus of proof is on Price, so he plans to go to see well-known back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins in Los Angeles to get a neutral opinion.
"They [the Orioles] were worried that as soon as they picked up the option, I would go in for back surgery," Price said. "Why would I do that when I don't have any pain? Anyone who's interested in signing me would take the time to find out that I have no restrictions."
The departure of Price leaves the Orioles with only two experienced left-handers in the bullpen, one of them a surplus starting pitcher (Jeff Ballard) and the other a borderline setup man (Kevin Hickey) who spent half the season in the minor leagues.
His departure also leaves another open space on the 40-man roster, which could signal an upcoming addition. The Orioles need all the roster space they can get to protect players in anticipation of the December Rule V draft.
The club is well into its off-season reconstruction project. Reliever Brian Holton and outfielder Brad Komminsk were allowed to file for free agency last week. The departure of Price is further proof that the Orioles are weeding out non-essential veterans from the organization. Whether that is being done to further the youth movement or make room for outside help should become apparent over the next four of five weeks.
The free-agent filing period began yesterday, and it is not known whether Orioles catcher Mickey Tettleton will take immediate advantage of the opportunity to declare himself a free agent.
Negotiations apparently are in progress between Tettleton and the club, but no one is saying much about them.
The Orioles also have to decide whether to exercise their option to renew the contract of designated hitter Ron Kittle, but that decision can wait until mid-December.