The bottom line: Tettleton trade is calculated


January 13, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

It was reported incorrectly in yesterday's editions that Baltimore Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles has had surgery on his shoulder. Mr. Hoiles, whose shoulder was injured last season, has not had an operation.

Give the Orioles this much, they didn't leave us in suspense for long. For those of us who couldn't figure out why they were suddenly willing to spend the big bucks -- at least for one season -- on Glenn Davis, it has now been pretty well mapped out for us.

It's just a matter of arithmetic, so go grab your calculators and ledger paper and maybe we can figure this problem out together.


The Orioles traded for Davis, as we all know. He will earn this season somewhere between $2.5 million and $3 million, a lot of money by any standards and Florida lottery jackpot money by Orioles owner Eli Jacobs' standards.

Now, the Orioles could pay this salary out of the many millions of dollars in profit they made last season, or they could find another way to finance the contract. Fortunately, they can't tax us, although watch what tickets cost in 1992 at the new Camden Yards stadium. But they could look around and hope to find the money somewhere.

They found $1.6 million yesterday when they dumped -- yes, dumped is the operative word -- Mickey Tettleton, who was traded to the Tigers, who then signed him for the $1.6 million. The Orioles got Jeff Robinson in exchange, a starting pitcher coming off a 10-9 season with a 5.96 ERA. He will make something like $600,000 this season, which is slightly less than Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling would have made combined.

So, what have we come up with? Once you subtract Tettleton, the Orioles have gotten Davis for a little over a million dollars, which isn't bad, unless you factor in that the Orioles have also lost their first-team catcher and potential power hitter. You can't really think Tettleton-for-Robinson (who had a stress fracture in a bone in his pitching arm last season) is equal value.

But, you might well ask, what about Dwight Evans? Didn't his signing show a willingness to spend? Good question. Evans signed a one-year contract worth $1.3 million, with incentives. Of that, $300,000 is guaranteed. If Evans doesn't cut it in spring training, the Orioles are out the price of a third-team shortstop. And, besides, how did they pay for Evans? By dumping Phil Bradley and his $1.1 million contract. They also dumped Ron Kittle and his $600,000. In ecological terms, the dump-happy Orioles are a disaster.

I don't want to suggest that Tettleton is a great player. I know how bad a year he had in 1990. I know that when he became a free agent, he either had an unlisted phone number or no one was interested. But that's not why the Orioles traded him. He was their starting catcher, after all, and would have been again. By giving up Tettleton, the Orioles leave themselves with Bob Melvin, a career back-up, and young Chris Hoiles, who had surgery on his shoulder.

This trade looks to be based purely on the bottom line. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Orioles are going to get another catcher. Maybe they think they've helped their pitching. Maybe this is all part of some grand design.

Eventually, we should know a lot more, because eventually the matter of Davis' future will need to be resolved. At the end of the coming season, he is eligible to become a free agent. Will the Orioles keep him? Or, asked a different way, how could they not keep him?

I'll give you a few clues that haven't been made available to the game-playing public. I've had deep-background conversation with several well-placed Orioles officials. One said it was obvious the Orioles wouldn't trade three young players just to rent a guy for one season, meaning that, of course, they'd sign Davis. Another said, in effect, that it all depends on just how much money is involved, meaning that Eli Jacobs will, of course, make the call.

The answer, to this point, is that no one knows, probably not even Jacobs. Here's an intriguing scenario, although one that everyone involved would deny: The Orioles' front office persuades Jacobs to make the trade, telling him that although Davis has only one year left on his contract, the baseball people are willing to take that risk. The reason they so readily adopt this stance is that Davis represents a gun -- heck, a howitzer -- to the owner's head. Can you imagine the pressure there would be on the Orioles to re-sign Davis if he has any kind of season, even at the, say, four-year, $16 million price tag that comes with him?

Would those officials who made the trade really send off Harnisch, Finley and Schilling if they didn't believe Jacobs would come through in the end?

I'd like to believe that Jacobs will come through. The Davis trade gives legitimacy to the Orioles. With him, suddenly, they are a contender in the American League East. If they keep his powerful bat in the middle of the lineup and if the young pitching progresses as hoped, the Orioles could be contenders for years, in which case the Tettleton deal probably doesn't matter much.

If the Orioles keep Davis, they're obviously serious about building a winner. If they don't, they're obviously serious about something else entirely.

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