The Baltimore Orioles appear intent on signing a free-agent pitcher to fill out their starting rotation, but the market does not seem to share their enthusiasm.
"The market has been very slow in developing," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said yesterday. "The process, in general, is moving more slowly than it has in past years."
Last year, for instance, a number of early signings set the stage for a free-agent free-for-all at the winter meetings. But this year's crop of free agents seemed to be waiting for someone to set the salary spiral back into motion. That someone might be outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who agreed to a $29 million, five-year contract with the New York Mets last night.
The Orioles are not pursuing anyone in Bonilla's price range. They're more interested in a group of more moderately priced veteran pitchers that includes Bob Walk, Kirk McCaskill, Joe Hesketh and Jim DeShaies. The club would like to go to next week's winter meetings able to concentrate on trade talks, but the free agent situation figures to remain a major preoccupation when club officials arrive in Miami on Saturday.
"Every situation is different," Lucchino said. "We tend to be more active and motivated than some clubs, so there is a sense that things are moving more slowly than you would like to see."
It appears that Walk has risen to the top of the club's free-agent wish list, followed closely by Hesketh and McCaskill. Walk is a 35-year-old right-hander who has pitched more than 200 innings only once in his 11-year major-league career, but he was 9-2 for the National League East champion Pittsburgh Pirates last year, and his lifetime record is 21 games over .500.
Hesketh also had some solid numbers last year. He was 12-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 39 games (17 starts) for the Boston Red Sox, but owns just 41 major-league victories in six seasons.
McCaskill was one of the losingest pitchers in baseball last season, compiling a 10-19 record for the California Angels, but his 4.26 ERA reflects a season in which he was a victim of non-support. He is the only pitcher of the four to win more than 15 games in a season, and he has averaged 175 innings over seven seasons despite a pair of arm injuries.
The Orioles refuse to make their priorities public, but they appear to favor Walk because of his experience and the fact that he has posted winning records in each of the past five seasons. The outcome of this year's free-agent search, however, figures to depend as much on price as promise, which explains why the club is working on several fronts. But the Orioles are not in a position to force the action.
There also is the option of trading for a pitcher, but clubs are reluctant to talk seriously until the free-agent picture clears up.
"The bottom line," Lucchino said, "is that despite our efforts to move things along, things are moving slowly on the trade front because of the free-agent situation, and -- for whatever reason -- things are moving slowly on the free-agent front."
* The Orioles have outrighted relief pitcher Stacy Jones to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings roster, reducing the major-league roster to 37 players.
* The Orioles' 14th annual benefit sale will begin Saturday at Memorial Stadium and extend through Dec. 14. The club will sell souvenirs and memorabilia to benefit Santa Claus Anonymous and the Orioles Children's Charities. Weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekdays, noon to 7 p.m.