Mess with Olson is of O's own making

January 13, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Gregg Olson's agent says a dozen teams are interested in his client, and three are offering multi-year contracts. The Orioles' decision to make Olson a free agent was understandable, but it's starting to look as if they should have risked arbitration and avoided this mess.

The gamble would have been considerable -- Olson might have won $3.5 million in arbitration, then required season-ending elbow surgery before ever throwing a pitch. But the stakes are just as high now, with the latest medical tests showing no evidence of a torn ligament in his right elbow.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos continues to insist that Olson's arm "could very well be a problem in the future," but Olson's agent, Jeff Moorad, claims other teams are willing to invest long term in a closer who has earned more saves (160) than any 27-year-old reliever in history.

California is the only team to acknowledge its offer, but Toronto, Philadelphia and Atlanta are among the clubs believed to be interested. The last time Angelos called Moorad's bluff, the Orioles lost Will Clark to Texas. But if Moorad won't reveal the specifics of Olson's offers, who's to say he isn't posturing?

Yes, the Orioles still intend to sign Olson. Likewise, Moorad still says Olson's first choice is to remain in Baltimore. The problem is, the interest of several clubs apparently was aroused by the results of Olson's visit to orthopedist James Andrews 10 days ago.

Andrews reported no ligament tear -- a finding confirmed by the Orioles' most recent tests. That seemingly indicates Olson's condition is improving, as does his recent work at Camden Yards, where he is throwing off a mound. Angelos, however, said it would be "simplistic" to think Olson is fully healed.

"If Gregg pitches in his usual fashion and applies his total strength to the pitching effort, we know something could develop beyond what appears to be the case now," Angelos said yesterday. "It could result in a serious problem and his inability to pitch."

That's why the Orioles were so reluctant to face arbitration with Olson. Under the maximum 20 percent pay-cut rule, the lowest they could have offered him was $1.84 million. Their initial goal was to sign him for less than that, and enable him to reach his full market value through incentives.

Angelos obviously is willing to spend the money -- he has committed more than $50 million in salaries in his first three months as owner. Still, he's consistently reluctant to offer large guarantees to players in questionable physical condition, and Olson falls into that category.

Forget length of contract -- the issue here is guaranteed money, be it for one year or four. Angelos sounds willing to raise the Orioles' initial offer -- "it may need some additional study," he said. General manager Roland Hemond is expected to speak with Moorad today, and could make a second proposal.

Everyone knows the worst-case scenario -- a healthy Olson earning 40 saves for another club in 1994. The Angels, Braves and Phillies all need closers. The Jays are harder to figure. They probably would want Olson to be Duane Ward's setup man. It's doubtful Olson would accept such a role.

Angelos argues that the best fit for Olson is in Baltimore, where manager Johnny Oates is willing to limit his innings to guard against further injury, with Alan Mills becoming a part-time closer. "Other clubs might say, 'When we need you to pitch, you'll pitch,' " Angelos said. The Orioles, he explained, would be more protective.

Granted, the plan might make it difficult for Olson to reach his incentives, but Angelos said the club still would want him to earn as many saves as possible, knowing it would result in a more successful team. The bottom line? "There's a real affection for him," Angelos said. "This is where his home is. I think he belongs here."

Moorad does, too, but business is business. It's fair to ask why a team would make Olson a multi-year offer when it's not even certain he could perform in the first year. But the Orioles can't get philosophical. They created this mess, when arbitration presented a way out.

No, it wasn't an attractive option. Olson might have gotten the big money, then taken it nice and easy in spring training, leaving the Orioles uncertain until Opening Day. Even worse, he might have gotten reinjured before the season even started, making the investment an utter waste.

Still, is the current predicament any better? The latest tests show no torn ligament. The calls to Moorad's office keep coming. The Orioles appeared to bid against themselves when there was no market for Rafael Palmeiro. Now, they face competition for Olson, in a market they created.

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