Rick Sutcliffe filed for free agency yesterday, but agent Barry Axelrod insists the veteran pitcher still has every hope of returning to the Orioles.
Sutcliffe became one of the first players in this year's deep free-agent field to notify the Major League Baseball Players Association of his intention to test the market. He may begin talking with other clubs at any time, but he cannot discuss money and he cannot sign a contract until after the 15-day free-agent filing period ends Nov. 9.
He filed early, but that was only because the Orioles have made it clear they will not re-sign him until after the Nov. 17 National League expansion draft.
"There is no significance to the timing," Axelrod said. "We could wait until the last day, but there is no advantage to putting it off. The Orioles let us know that they aren't interested in signing him [before the draft] and using up a spot on their protected list, so it was just a matter of going through the procedure.
"We're not doing it on the first day to make any type of statement. We're not spiking the football in the end zone. We have to do this."
Sutcliffe is one of three 1992 Orioles eligible for free agency. Outfielder Joe Orsulak and relief pitcher Pat Clements also can file.
Sutcliffe already has voiced his desire to remain in Baltimore, and the club has stated it wants him back. The draft has complicated the situation because any free agent signed before Nov. 17 would be eligible for the draft if he is not on the club's 15-man protected list.
"The Orioles are still Rick's first choice," Axelrod said. "We're having ongoing communication. We've traded some ideas. But even if we were in total agreement, we would have to wait.
"The obvious downside of this for the Orioles is that it is removing their exclusivity in dealing with Rick. When the 15 days are up, another club could come in and offer him a contract."
The upside is that the club can use the roster spot to protect a different player. The Orioles also have reason to believe that other clubs will wait until after Nov. 17 to get serious about free agents.
Sutcliffe, 36, signed a one-year contract worth $1.2 million plus incentives last year. He doesn't figure to come quite so cheaply in 1993. He won 16 games and proved his arm was healthy, so he appears to be in a position to demand more than a one-year deal.
"I think that's important to him," Axelrod said. "Rick thinks he has four years left, and he would like to end his career in Baltimore. I'm not saying that Rick wants a four-year contract. I don't know if it's going to be two years or two and an option or three years or whatever, but I think something beyond one year is going to be available to us."
The Orioles are aware of this, and they apparently remain interested. They recently requested another physical examination to make sure Sutcliffe's arm and shoulder still are sound. He visited Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., last week and -- according to his agent -- got a clean bill of health.
"They asked for a physical, and it stands to reason that other teams might ask for the same thing, so we decided to go to an independent doctor," Axelrod said. "This way, we'll have it on hand if anyone wants to see it."
The Orioles' free-agent schedule is relatively light. Orsulak and Clements are expected to file soon, and the club must make contract decisions on three other players by Thursday. That's the deadline for offering salary arbitration to pitchers Craig Lefferts and Storm Davis, and it also is the deadline for exercising a contract option on Tim Hulett.
The club declined an option on left-handed reliever Mike Flanagan yesterday and will make a further announcement on his status today.
Club officials aren't saying what they will do, but it seems likely the club will allow Lefferts and Davis to become free agents. Lefferts stands to improve on his $2.041 million salary in arbitration after a 14-victory season. Davis made $2.4 million last year, which probably would price him out of the long relief role, but the team could release him and try to negotiate a new contract with a lower base salary and some incentives.
Hulett, a utility infielder, figures to stay. He is a favorite of manager Johnny Oates, and he made just $380,000 last year.
The 26 players who filed yesterday for free agency (players with six or more seasons of major-league service whose contracts have expired and who are not bound by repeater rights restrictions may file for free agency through Nov. 8):
* Baltimore: Rick Sutcliffe, P.
* Boston: Wade Boggs, 3B.
* California: Rene Gonzales, 3B.
* Chicago: Dale Sveum, SS.
* Kansas City: Bob Melvin, C.
* Milwaukee: Chris Bosio, P.
* Minnesota: John Smiley, P.
* Oakland: Mark McGwire, 1B; Jeff Russell, P; Terry Steinbach, C; Ruben Sierra, OF.
* Seattle: Harold Reynolds, 2B.
* Texas: Jose Guzman, P.
* Chicago: Greg Maddux, P; Dave Smith, P.
* Cincinnati: Glenn Braggs, OF; Greg Swindell, P.
* Montreal: Spike Owen, SS.
* Pittsburgh: Barry Bonds, OF; Doug Drabek, P.
* St. Louis: Scott Terry, P; Todd Worrell, P.
* San Diego: Larry Andersen, P; Randy Myers, P; Benito Santiago, C.
* San Francisco: Cory Snyder, OF.