The Baltimore Orioles took a first step toward solving their run-production shortage, signing free-agent outfielder Dwight Evans last night to a one-year, incentive-laden contract that could be worth more than $1.3 million.
Evans, 39, agreed to an unguaranteed contract that calls for a $200,000 signing bonus, a $600,000 base salary and performance and awards bonuses that could add another $500,000 or more.
"This is a step in the right direction," manager Frank Robinson said. "We've played the youngsters the past couple of years. We made a big step forward and then fell back. We just feel like we can use the experience of a player of Dwight's caliber. We feel he can give us some production and some leadership."
Evans had spent his entire 17-year major-league career with the Boston Red Sox before becoming a free agent when that team decided not to exercise a club option on the 1991 season. He has suffered from a chronic back problem since 1989, but the Orioles decided that a proven but medically questionable hitter was better than none at all.
"To have someone of his stature join our club is a big plus," general manager Roland Hemond said. "He's such a fine all-around player. To me, he's a future Hall of Famer."
Why the Orioles?
"Why not?" said Evans, inadvertently calling on the club's 1989 slogan. "A lot of things attracted me to the Orioles -- the ballpark, the organization, the club's winning tradition. I know it's a young ballclub and they aren't picked to do much, but I've been on some other ballclubs that weren't picked to do much and we did some damage and won some championships."
The Orioles had pursued free agent first baseman/outfielder Franklin Stubbs for the past six weeks, but learned on Wednesday that Stubbs had agreed to terms on a three-year, $6.4 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Negotiations with Evans and agent Jack Sands were already heating up by then, but the signing was placed on hold while the Orioles did a little back-checking. They had club orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein consult with Red Sox orthopedist Dr. Arthur Pappas, who has treated Evans throughout the veteran outfielder's career in Boston.
Evans, who batted .249 with 13 home runs and 67 RBI last year, probably will be the Orioles' right-handed designated hitter. He has long been one of the most solid right fielders in the American League, but did not play in the field at any time last year.
The bone spur in his lower back has kept him out of the outfield since August 1989, leading him to contemplate surgery last season. But Pappas reportedly advised him against it and apparently has told the Orioles there is no reason Evans cannot play a part-time defensive role.
"I could have played the last month or so," Evans said. "I felt really good. There has been improvement in my back. It's not a disk problem. It's a bone spur that has smoothed over. The one thing I did do with the Orioles was to be very upfront. I let them know about my condition, but my ulterior motive is to play the outfield."
The club already has plenty of outfield depth. The Orioles signed Evans because he has long been one of baseball's best clutch hitters. But the outfield is an issue because Evans wants it to be.
"He's anxious to prove he can play in the field," Hemond said. "He felt last year toward the end of the year that he was capable of going out there. We recognize that it doesn't have to be on an everyday basis, but we're hopeful that with his outstanding defensive ability, he'll be able to perform for us in the outfield."
The Orioles were able to work out a contract under which Evans shared some of the risk. He is guaranteed about $300,000 (the signing bonus plus a sixth of the base salary) and would only have to be with the club on Opening Day to guarantee the rest of his base pay.
Evans made $1.3 million in 1990 and would have made the same next season if the Red Sox had renewed his contract. The deal with the Orioles will give him a chance to make more than that if he reaches all his incentive plateaus.
"How much I'm going to play I don't know," Evans said. "That's not the point. My objective is to win. It's not so much how much I can play, it's what I do to win. This game is not about how much you can win in arbitration or what you can make on the open market."
The back problem might have kept him out of the outfield last year, but it did not prevent him from playing a significant role in the Red Sox's run at the American League East title. He delivered in a number of clutch situations down the stretch, as Boston outdistanced the Toronto Blue Jays. His 67 RBI were a seven-year low, but he has driven in 401 runs during the past four seasons.
The Orioles might be taking a chance on an aging star with a questionable medical history, but they also are getting a player with a lengthy track record and an even longer list of accomplishments.