Orioles hope Sutcliffe can shoulder load Pitcher's 1-year deal is full of incentives

December 20, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

The Baltimore Orioles were looking for a veteran pitcher to help stabilize the starting rotation and provide a positive influence on their youthful pitching staff. They ended up with two.

Just a week after bringing Storm Davis back to Baltimore, the club brought free-agent right-hander Rick Sutcliffe back to the American League, signing him yesterday to a one-year contract worth $1.2 million plus incentives that could push his 1992 salary past $2 million.

Sutcliffe, 35, has won 16 games or more five times during his 13-year major-league career, which includes a 20-victory season and a National League Cy Young Award in 1984. He has struggled with shoulder soreness the past two seasons, but pitched well enough in the second half of 1991 to convince the Orioles he was worth the modest risk of a one-year contract.

He accepted a base salary more than $1 million lower than he made last year, but the incentive package-- which is based on starts and innings pitched -- could get him close to the $2.275 million he earned in the final year of a multiyear deal with the Chicago Cubs.

"The contract wasn't the deciding factor," Sutcliffe said. "I had an offer to sign [with the Cubs] which was similar to the one I signed here, but for some reason there was a problem with the new GM there. In my conversations with Larry Himes, I got the feeling they didn't really want me back."

He was a perfect fit for the Orioles, who have been wary of spending the millions required to sign one of the other free-agent pitchers to a multiyear contract. Sutcliffe's willingness to take a pay-for-performance package had to be appealing. The club signed free-agent right fielder Dwight Evans to the same kind of contract at about this time last year.

"I'm excited about getting the man," general manager Roland Hemond said. "He's a horse. I saw him pitch so many times at Wrigley Field. I admire his knowledge of pitching and his competitiveness."

The Orioles had been in contact with Sutcliffe and agent Barry Axelrod since late November, but their interest intensified after the Cubs failed to offer Sutcliffe salary arbitration by the Dec. 7 deadline. Axelrod met face-to-face with Hemond, club president Larry Lucchino and club counsel Lon Babby at the winter meetings in Miami Beach, Fla., and continued negotiations by telephone until the deal was completed this week.

Sutcliffe traveled to Baltimore for yesterday's news conference and toured the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he began selecting seats for the 50 season tickets he plans on purchasing to distribute to underprivileged and physically disabled children.

"I'm thrilled," Sutcliffe said. "From the very beginning, Roland was just terrific. I felt wanted from the very beginning. One of my best friends in this game is John Oates, and he played a huge part in this."

Oates and Sutcliffe were teammates with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1979, the year Sutcliffe won 17 games and was named National League Rookie of the Year. They were reunited in 1984 when Sutcliffe was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Cubs, the team that gave Oates his first major-league coaching position. Now, they are together once more.

"I'm much more excited about our balance right now," Oates said. "I already felt pretty good about the way we hit and catch the ball, but we needed to upgrade our pitching. We're not going to stop. We're actually going to have some competition going."

Sutcliffe has long been known for his fiery competitive spirit. He once overturned the desk in Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda's office in a rage over his diminishing role with the club. He has played on division-winning clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago. He came back last year from a serious shoulder injury to pitch well down the stretch. Oates wants some of that determination to rub off on the likes of young starters Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina.

"That's one of the reasons I was so interested in acquiring him," Oates said. "I saw what he did in 1979. I saw what he did in 1984. I'm not going to be naive and say that he's going to pitch 240 innings and win 15-20 games for us. I'm not going to say that. But our reports say he's healthy, and I do know what's inside Rick Sutcliffe."

Sutcliffe's shoulder problems limited him to 21 1/3 innings in 1990 and 96 2/3 last year. But he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a piece of torn cartilage early last season and came back to go 4-1 with a 2.33 ERA in his final 10 starts of the year.

"The season ended too soon," said Sutcliffe, who passed an Orioles physical before signing yesterday. "I didn't get the chance to prove that I am 100 percent healthy, but I'm going to do that here.

"If I didn't think I could, I wouldn't have signed the contract. It's not the money. I've made $15 million playing this game. It's not ego. I think I love the game more than I ever have."

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