SARASOTA, Fla. -- With Cal Ripken unsigned, the Orioles tremble each time the game's top salary takes another quantum leap. Here's one reason Eli Jacobs should relax: At the other end of the pay scale, there's a trend that suits his cost-cutting agenda.
It's called the minor-league contract, and it's one of Roland Hemond's favorite tricks. Now other general managers are working under equally tight budgets. All this winter, they forced players with major-league experience to accept Triple-A deals.
The Orioles added three such players -- left-hander Dennis Rassmussen, right-hander Eric Hetzel and catcher Mark Parent. Rasmussen stands the best chance of making the club. Indeed, it's almost certain he'll pitch at Camden Yards before the season ends.
For once, the Orioles are ahead of the game. Hemond turned Baltimore into a haven for minor-league free agents, and this latest development plays to his regime's greatest strength: Acquiring players buried by other clubs and giving them an opportunity to succeed.
Some come in trades (Randy Milligan and Joe Orsulak). Some come through spring-training invitations (Mike Flanagan and Rick Dempsey). But most come under minor-league contracts (Tim Hulett, Sam Horn, Chito Martinez and Todd Frohwirth, plus former Orioles Kevin Hickey and Mickey Tettleton).
Rasmussen, 32, fits into a new category: Major-league free agent unable to find a job. He was 6-13 with a 3.74 ERA for San Diego last season. Kirk McCaskill also had inferior numbers (10-19, 4.26) in California, but signed a three-year contract with the Chicago White Sox for between $6 and $7 million.
How did Rasmussen fall through the cracks? It's not a big mystery. Despite being 6-foot-7, Rasmussen throws only 84-85 mph. He went 18-6 for the New York Yankees in 1986, but his winning percentage has declined each of the past five years.
His biggest obstacle, however, was his '91 salary -- $805,000. Clubs are trying to scale back on expensive veterans so they can pay their superstars. Rasmussen will earn only a $250,000 base if he makes the Orioles -- $300,000 if he lasts 45 days, $400,000 if he lasts 100.
A record number of players are in the same position, including names as prominent as Jim Gantner, Doug Jones, Bill Krueger, Brook Jacoby and Cory Snyder (not to mention former Orioles Phil Bradley, Rene Gonzales, Jeff Robinson, Rick Schu, Jeff Stone and Mickey Weston).
"I'm not prepared to draw conclusions, but there are a number of questions there," said Donald Fehr, head of the players' association. "Something significant to me will be how many of these players make clubs. If a lot of them do, that would indicate they have more market value than this suggests."
In other words, the trend could develop into another area of dispute in labor talks that are expected to reopen at the end of this season. Of course, it's not surprising that owners are devising new ways to hold down costs as they outspend each other for top players.
Whatever, the Orioles find Rasmussen intriguing. He's the only pitcher on their staff who has averaged 30 starts the past six seasons. And he's the only one with a realistic chance of breaking up an all-right-handed rotation in a ballpark designed to favor left-handers.
Rasmussen will follow Bob Milacki in tomorrow's exhibition opener against St. Louis, and the Orioles are anxious to see him perform. "I think he can be a find for us, a sleeper," assistant GM Doug Melvin said. "He's not a hard-throwing left-hander, but he's sneaky. He knows what he's doing out there."
Both Melvin and manager John Oates recalled Rasmussen from their days in the Yankees' organization; Oates said Rasmussen was his ace left-hander at Triple A Columbus in 1983. The Orioles first expressed interest in Rasmussen last winter, but he re-signed with San Diego.
He started 3-1 with a 0.71 ERA, then dropped his next nine starts, the longest losing streak in the majors. The Padres scored two runs or less in eight of those games. His batting support -- 3.5 runs per start -- was the eighth worst in the National League.
Rasmussen obviously isn't the second coming of Mark Langston, but his '91 ERA would have ranked second only to Mike Mussina among Orioles starters. He's the obvious replacement, if any of the first five breaks down. He could even figure in relief if left-hander Jim Poole's arm remains sore.
"I don't ever take anything for granted," Rasmussen said. "I've always felt I've had to compete for a spot. Sometimes, you have to compete more. This is one of those times. The advantage I have is, I'm healthy. They know what they can expect."
He came cheap.
He came to the right place.