SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles may be one of baseball's most fiscally conservative clubs, but events of the past few days leave reason to believe the front office is changing its approach to signing young players.
First baseman David Segui, 26, just agreed to terms on a two-year contract worth $785,000, and there are indications that more multi-year deals are under consideration. Pitcher Mike Mussina, 24, confirmed that the club had made a multi-year proposal recently. Catcher Chris Hoiles, 27, also has discussed a long-term deal, but appears close to signing a one-year contract.
These revelations, combined with the on-going talks the club has been conducting with three-year veterans Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson, point to a philosophical change of direction for a club that generally has gone year-to-year until pressed by the prospect of arbitration or free agency.
If there is a trend developing, it can be traced to the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, who have experimented with different ways of avoiding arbitration and the unpleasantness of yearly salary disputes. The White Sox instituted a pay-for-performance plan a few years ago that did not really catch on. The Indians simply have signed their best one- to three-year players to long-term deals.
Nobody has to do that. The way the compensation system is set up, the vast majority of players with less than three years of service time have no bargaining leverage. They can be renewed by their clubs at any figure the team chooses, as long as the club meets the minimum salary requirement and does not levy more than a 20 percent pay cut.
But there are plenty of good reasons to get players under contract and keep them happy.
"That's always important," said assistant general manager Frank Robinson, who negotiated Segui's contract. "That's one of our goals -- to keep players happy if we can get them signed at a figure that is acceptable to both sides. You also have to turn it around and give players and their agents credit. It was a mutual desire to get these things done."
There also are financial benefits to the club. The Orioles signed reliever Gregg Olson to a two-year contract before the 1992 season that paid him $1.45 million last year and will pay him $2.25 million this year. If he had negotiated a one-year deal for 1991, he would have been in a position to command far more in arbitration this year.
The benefits of signing a player in Segui's service class are less clear-cut, but they might be just as significant. Off-season contract negotiations stretch into spring training, which can lead to bitter salary showdowns at a time when every team is trying to build a positive atmosphere for the new season.
"I think any time you see something that's not the norm, you step back and take a look at it to see if it's feasible for your ballclub," Robinson said. "We're not going completely into it the way Cleveland has, but we are taking a more serious look, and in some cases it makes sense."
The two-year deal represents a major change of fortune for Segui, who last year was sure that his best hope of regular playing time was the November expansion draft. His situation improved dramatically when the club chose not to tender a contract to veteran Randy Milligan in December. Now, Segui has a chance to get a lot of playing time as the only backup to Glenn Davis at first base.
"This is a huge turnaround," said Segui, who had a .306 on-base percentage with a home run and 17 RBI in a limited role last season. "I'm really excited about it. I hope it's a sign that I'm going to get more playing time, but I also hope that Glenn is healthy and gets his playing time. To me, this kind of tells me that the team has some plans for me -- at least for the next year or so. I think it's a good deal for me and the club."
Segui has bulked up for the new season, adding 20 pounds to his upper body in hopes of improving his power potential. He said yesterday that he already is noticing a difference in batting practice.
The Orioles long have considered him one of their top hitting prospects. Now, the club hopes that his new contract will allow him to relax and fulfill his potential at the plate.
"I think what it does is give him peace of mind," Robinson said. "He doesn't have to worry about how many at-bats he's going to get. He can just perform."