The Baltimore Orioles are "a front-runner" in the bidding for free agent Rick Sutcliffe, who hopes to sign a contract with someone by the end of the week, the pitcher's agent said yesterday.
"They seem interested, and we're interested in them," Barry Axelrod said. "They are definitely a front-runner."
Sutcliffe apparently has risen to the top of the Orioles' free-agent shopping list, no doubt because he is willing to sign an incentive-laden, one-year contract. Right-hander Kirk McCaskill once was thought to be the most likely candidate to fill out the starting rotation, but during the weekend he canceled a scheduled visit to Baltimore when he sensed that the Orioles' interest in him -- and possibly in a multiyear contract -- had diminished.
Orioles president Larry Lucchino would not rate the likelihood of signing Sutcliffe, but did confirm that negotiations are in progress.
"He's one of the people we have spoken with, but I'm not going to get into talking about negotiations," Lucchino said. "We just need to proceed with our efforts to improve our pitching staff."
Axelrod also is saying little about the negotiations, except that Sutcliffe wants to have his contract resolved before Christmas.
"We're at the point where we are eliminating clubs," Axelrod said. "I had about 12 on the list at the winter meetings, but there are some that are conditional. The Oakland A's and New York Yankees, for instance, are waiting to see if Ron Darling accepts arbitration [on Dec. 19] before deciding whether they're interested."
Sutcliffe (6-5 with a 4.10 ERA last season, about half of which he missed with shoulder problems) does not have that option. The Chicago Cubs rejected arbitration with him, so he cannot return to that club until May 1. Not that he intended to do so. He can continue to negotiate with other clubs throughout the off-season, but apparently does not want to stretch out the uncertainty any longer than necessary.
"There's no real urgency," Axelrod said. "It's just a preference on his part to get it done. This stuff can get grueling. Rick and his family want to have an idea where he is going to be next year. We hope to have things resolved in six or seven days."
That should appeal to the Orioles, who tried to start early on their off-season business this year only to find that few agents or general managers shared their enthusiasm.
The search for pitching help has kept the Orioles busy for the past two months. General manager Roland Hemond finally acquired a starter last week, sending Bob Melvin to the Kansas City Royals for Storm Davis, but the club still would like to go to spring training with at least one more candidate for the rotation.
The list of candidates apparently has not changed much in the past couple of weeks. McCaskill is not out of the question, but his decision to bypass Baltimore and go to Boston for a face-to-face visit with Red Sox officials cannot be considered a good sign. The Orioles also expressed serious interest in left-hander Joe Hesketh and right-hander Bob Walk, though both appear to have slipped down the list of candidates.
Sutcliffe makes sense because he is a veteran starter with a strong track record who will not insist that the Orioles give him 2 2TC multiyear guarantee. He is coming off two years of arm injuries, but pitched well during the final weeks of the 1991 season.