The Baltimore Orioles are on a which hunt. They are trying to figure out which of the more than 80 available free agents would fit their needs without flouting their conservative economic principles.
That's why general manager Roland Hemond has been running up his long-distance phone bill the past few weeks. If the Orioles signed all the players he has asked about, they could put their own National League expansion franchise in Washington.
So, what is this team going to do? Is it going to sign a top-flight free-agent pitcher, or go for a power-hitting outfielder? Or both?
Hemond will not say. The Orioles are very secretive about the inner workings of their front office. There have been reports of Orioles interest from every corner of the free-agent market, but the problem is making any sense out of it.
Hemond concedes that there is interest in signing a veteran pitcher, and feelers have gone out to Mike Boddicker, Bud Black (who since has signed with the San Francisco Giants), Ted Higuera and several significant others. But the Orioles, who already have more candidates than they have spots in their starting rotation, would have to tie any pitching acquisition to their continuing effort to trade for run-production help.
"There are times when it makes sense to strengthen your strength," Hemond said. "Frank [Robinson] had talked about a veteran starter. It creates some stability with your young starters. And if you get deeper in pitching, you're more ready to make trades."
But if the Orioles are as committed to financial restraint as they have led everyone to believe, it would make more economic sense to spend the millions to sign one big hitter -- maybe even two -- and allow the pitching youth movement to run its course.
The top candidates figure to be Tom Brunansky, Franklin Stubbs and Candy Maldonado, any of whom would beef up the Orioles' outfield considerably. Stubbs probably would come cheapest, because he is coming off a breakthrough season (23 homers, 71 RBI) and doesn't have a whole lot to back it up. Maldonado has driven in 80 or more runs in three of the past five seasons, but the price figures to be about $6 million over three years. Brunansky probably has priced himself out of Baltimore, though his numbers fell off some in 1990.
The market just is starting to do some business, so look for the signings and the speculation to increase progressively until mid-December. Look for the Orioles to go door-to-door until they find someone to sign for less than Cal Ripken is going to make next year. But don't expect any more than speculation until after the winter meetings. There won't be any bargains out there until the Dec. 19 salary-arbitration deadline puts pressure on the supply side of this market.
If free agent Mickey Tettleton gets a three-year deal from some other club, the Orioles also would go into spring training one injury away from having a serious depth problem behind the plate.
There are no immediate plans to add a veteran catcher, but there is at least one viable alternative if the
club decides that Chris Hoiles (who is coming off a late-season shoulder injury) and Bob Melvin aren't enough.
The Kansas City Royals recently told defensive specialist Bob Boone that his services would not be needed in 1991, which has left him out of a job and looking to play one more season before retiring.
"I know the age [he'll be 43 next week] is going to scare some people off," he said, "but I think there still is a little playing left in me. What I'm doing is running around in my head: Where do I fit? Is there a place, like a Seattle or a Baltimore, where I would have a chance to win a job?"
Boone missed much of last season with a broken finger, but his advancing years have not kept him from being the most durable catcher in major-league history. Two years ago, he set the all-time record for games caught.