OAKLAND, Calif. -- Orioles manager Frank Robinson wanted to add a hard-throwing lefthander to his bullpen even before the club decided not to exercise the option year on Joe Price's contract.
Now Price, 33, is a free agent, and the Orioles are dangerously thin in an area most clubs consider a trouble spot. The amazing thing is, it appears they reached this point after acting hastily under a tight deadline.
The Orioles were contractually bound to decide Price's status by 12 a.m. yesterday. They did not reach their decision until late Saturday night, and only then after asking Price's agent for a one-week extension.
The agent, Cincinnati-based Joe Bick, said last night that he rejected the extension, as well as a separate contract proposal "that would have protected them in the event of serious injury . . . a restructured package."
General manager Roland Hemond said the Orioles declined to pick up Price's $400,000 option for two reasons -- first, their uncertainty over the bulging disk in his back; and second, their desire to clear roster space for younger pitchers.
Bick did not rule out Price returning to Baltimore next season, but it appears the Orioles have made a conscious decision to pursue another direction, one that could lead to an extended look for minor-league lefthanders Mike Linskey and Arthur Rhodes in spring training.
The club's indecision on Price apparently resulted from the dispersal of key officials, Bick said -- Hemond and president Larry Lucchino were attending the World Series, general counsel Lon Babby was in Baltimore and physician Charles Silberstein was on vacation.
"Our feeling was everyone has been well aware of this date since Jan. 11 when we signed the contract," Bick said. "There's no reason all of this couldn't have been coordinated a little better. We have absolutely no hard feelings about it. But we agreed to a deal."
"I sensed there was some confusion," Price said from his home in San Diego. "At least that's what Joe [Bick] told me. The thing I don't understand is why they let it go until the last minute and then try to rush to make a decision, one they may regret."
Hurried as the decision might have been, it did not come as a complete surprise. The Orioles asked Price to undergo a Magnetic Imaging Resonance test at the end of the season. Price complied, and club officials obviously were discouraged by the results.
Hemond would not reveal the findings of the test. "I don't want to make a big issue of it," he said. "I don't want to hurt Joe in any way." Price, meanwhile, continues to insist he is sound, and remains incredulous the Orioles made his back the central issue.
"That's their whole thing. That's their big concern," said Price, who has said he is tired of changing teams. "I just can't see it. Hell, I played golf three out of the last five days. The other day I played 18 and I had to carry my own bag."
Price, a 10-year veteran, finished 3-4 with a 3.58 earned run average this season. He allowed only nine of 50 inherited runners to score (18 percent). The rest of the Orioles' bullpen allowed 31 percent. The league average was 33 percent.
Bick said the Orioles at no time indicated they were displeased with Price's performance. However, they grew increasingly concerned over the condition of his back after placing him on the 15-day disabled list June 29.
Price pitched nearly half of his 65 1/3 innings after rejoining the club July 15, finishing with 50 appearances, his most since 1982. Yet Robinson did not use him the final 17 days of the season. Price's ERA was 2.88 before the injury and 4.35 after.
"They'll go out and get somebody, but they're going to pay a helluva lot more and who knows what kind of results they'll get," Price said. "Nobody out there is going to give them the quality I gave them last year that they're going to sign for $400,000."
The lefthanded relievers who figure to command the most attention on the free-agent market are Yankees' closer Dave Righetti (1-1, 3.57, 36 saves); and setup men Ken Dayley of St. Louis (4-4, 3.56, 2); Don Carman of Philadelphia (6-2, 4.15, 1); and Juan Agosto of Houston (9-8, 4.29, 4).
The Orioles offered Brian Holton for Carman last winter, but the Phillies demanded a younger pitcher instead (Holton has since become a free agent). The other lefthanded reliever the club coveted at that time was none other than Cincinnati's Norm Charlton, who later gained fame as a Nasty Boy.
Kevin Hickey is now the only pure lefthanded reliever on the 40-man roster after spending part of the season at Triple A; Eric Bell is a free agent, Dan Boone is off the roster and Jeff Ballard will compete for a starting job next spring.
Which raises speculation about Rhodes, a hard thrower who averaged more than a strikeout per inning as a starter at Class A and Double A. "That's premature," Hemond said. "But players do make jumps. You see it all the time, young players with good arms who are able to make substantial advancements."
Likewise for Linskey, a Baltimore native who was a combined 14-10 at Double A and Triple A. He doesn't throw as hard as Rhodes, and he has been a starter his entire career, but he could fill the other lefthanded role if the Orioles add a power pitcher.
Robinson said, "We've got all winter long and spring training. We'll find somebody if we have to." Could that somebody be Price? Bick said yes. "This does not mean absolutely, positively Joe [Price] won't be in Baltimore next year," he said. "All things considered, I think he will.
"They've indicated to us all the way through this thing they had absolutely no problem with his performance, it was simply a health question," Bick said. "Joe's ready, willing and able to prove he's healthy and capable of pitching in the big leagues effectively."