Tettleton sending powerful signal

Ken Rosenthal

July 01, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

It was business, it was baseball. Trading Mickey Tettleton satisfied the Orioles on both fronts, but as hot as their former catcher is right now, it's far too early to determine whether they made the right move.

The Orioles still believe they are better off long-term at catcher with the veteran Bob Melvin and the emerging Chris Hoiles. Yet there's no denying the trade also was motivated by financial concerns, and that clouds the entire picture.

Tettleton, 30, was a free agent headed for salary arbitration, and rather than face that two-headed monster, the Orioles abruptly sent him to Detroit for righthander Jeff Robinson on Jan. 12.

Tonight the rejuvenated Tettleton returns to Baltimore batting .272 with 14 homers and 41 RBIs. He ranks among the AL leaders with a .397 on-base percentage, and he's even thrown out 33 percent of his opposing runners attempting to steal.

That's surprising for a player whose defensive skills are considered mediocre. The Orioles' three catchers (Melvin, Hoiles and Ernie Whitt) have thrown out the same percentage. They're also batting a combined .256 with four homers and 22 RBIs.

Tettleton hit more homers than that last week, crushing seven in seven games, including two that cleared the roof at Tiger Stadium. He's also scored more than twice as many runs as the Orioles' trio (47-21), but enough with the comparisons.

For one thing, they neglect the contribution of Robinson (3-6, 4.46), who despite his inconsistency has been perhaps the Orioles' most effective starter. Also, they ignore the modest goal the club set for its catchers -- to match Tettleton's 51 RBIs from last season.

The additions of veterans Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans were supposed to account for any difference, and the Orioles were comfortable knowing their pitchers allowed a half-run per game less with Melvin catching instead of Tettleton the past two seasons.

So, it all seemed to make sense. But for all Tettleton's negative stats last year -- his club-record 160 strikeouts, his .155 average with men in scoring position -- the Orioles weren't only thinking about baseball when they made this trade.

They opened the season with two starting first basemen (Davis and Randy Milligan) and two starting third basemen (Leo Gomez and Craig Worthington), yet they couldn't wait to get rid of Tettleton for fear of having too many catchers.

This, after Tettleton grudgingly accepted a one-year contract when he could not sign elsewhere as a free agent. His salary was to be determined either through negotiation or arbitration. His free-agent rights were to carry over another year.

The Orioles stared Tettleton down.

And still they blinked.

"At the last second, what were they going to do?" said Tettleton's agent, Tony Attanasio. "They knew they had to go to arbitration. If they won, everything would have been fine. But if they lost, [majority owner] Eli Jacobs would have gone to Pluto on the next starship. He would have been the star in 'Rocketeer.' "

The Orioles knew Philadelphia already had re-signed catcher Darren Daulton for $6.75 million over three years. Tettleton had comparable statistics, and at one point Attanasio threatened, "If they want to arbitrate with Mickey, I'll just bring in Daulton's contract and say, 'I rest.' "

Tettleton probably would have asked for $2 million in arbitration; he wound up signing with Detroit for $1.6. The Orioles found both figures exorbitant. Besides, they were intent on playing Melvin, 29, and Hoiles, 26 -- to the point where Tettleton actually wanted a trade.

Thus, the deal was in the interests of both parties, and when Attanasio claims, "I created it," he isn't merely boasting. The Orioles asked Attanasio to steer them toward clubs that showed interest in Tettleton as a free agent. He pointed them toward Detroit. The Orioles got what they could.

"Of course it was money," Attanasio said. "If I went to the Orioles and said, 'We'll sign a five-year contract for $2.5 million,' you think they would have said no? You must never underestimate the economic decisions that have to be made. They are made above and beyond the ability of a guy to play."

That said, Attanasio claims no bitterness. Tettleton is now certain to enter the free-agent market as a catcher -- the Tigers use him as a DH only against lefthanders. As for the Orioles, Attanasio said they merely engaged in cost analysis. No problem there.

But assuming Hoiles was the Orioles' chief concern, why didn't the Orioles simply trade Melvin, instead of signing him to a two-year, $1.55 million deal? That way, they could have kept their best two offensive catchers -- albeit with the chance of losing Tettleton after this year.

According to assistant general manager Doug Melvin, the Orioles weren't convinced Tettleton was worth the risk. Twelve of his 15 homers last season came between May 17 and July 19. "With all the strikeouts and everything, we weren't sure he was going to make the adjustments," Melvin said.

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