CLEVELAND -- Right-hander Bob Milacki didn't wax nostalgic after he left the mound Wednesday night, though he quite possibly had made his final appearance in an Orioles uniform.
"That never crossed my mind," Milacki said yesterday. "I've still got a great chance to be back here next year. It all depends on what happens in the [expansion] draft -- who drafts who and who needs what."
His future in Baltimore could hinge on a number of factors, not the least of which is contractual. Milacki won $1.18 million in arbitration last year, so he would have to be paid a minimum of $944,000 if the Orioles tender him a contract for 1993.
That's a lot of money for a guy who finished the season with a 6-8 record and a 5.89 ERA, so the Orioles may try to trade Milacki or find a way to reduce their salary obligation if he is not taken in the expansion draft.
The options are limited. The club can choose not to tender him a contract and then try to re-sign him at a lower salary, but Milacki would become a non-compensation free agent. Or the Orioles could tender him a contract and bring him to spring training, then decide whether to keep him before his entire contract becomes guaranteed.
Milacki hopes they bring him back, but only if he'll have a legitimate chance to compete for a place in the starting rotation. If not, he hopes there will be a team out there with room for one more everyday starter.
"That's pretty obvious," he said. "You want to be where you're going to get the ball every fifth day. I want to play. I don't want to wait in the bullpen for somebody to go 2 1/3 innings so I can get into the game.
"If [going to another team] is what it will take to get me into a rotation, fine, but if I can get the same opportunity here that I had at the beginning of this season, that would be my first choice. My first choice would be to stay with the team that signed me. It would be a big disappointment to change uniforms."
Manager Johnny Oates will not speculate on next season, but it seems apparent that Milacki has dropped a couple of rungs on the depth chart. He came back from a minor-league assignment to pitch well against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 1 (eight innings, four hits) but his so-so performance in Wednesday night's 4-2 loss left Oates with the same doubts when the club optioned Milacki to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings in July.
"That's what we've been seeing all along," Oates said. "The best I've seen him throw in the last two years was in Oakland. No ifs, ands or buts. But he was behind everybody last night. He has to throw that first-pitch strike. He has to pitch ahead."
Milacki showed improvement after he went to the minor leagues. He went 7-1 in nine starts for the Red Wings before coming back to earn an impressive victory against the A's. Whether he showed enough improvement in the second half to warrant another shot at the rotation remains unclear.
He was one of the league's top rookie pitchers in 1989 and was the winningest pitcher on the club last year at 10-9, but the rotation seemed to pass him by this season.
"There comes a time when you have to get a little better or somebody's going to come and take your job," Oates said. "Ben McDonald, [Mike] Mussina, [Arthur] Rhodes and Alan Mills. Those guys made strides this year."
If the Orioles re-sign Rick Sutcliffe and/or exercise their option on left- hander Craig Lefferts, Milacki's would go to spring training as the No. 6 or 7 candidate for the rotation. He might be better off in Miami or Denver or with some other pitching-hungry team.
He would be a perfect expansion player, a young veteran pitcher with potential and credentials, but the salary situation also could work against him.