Orioles plug Sabo into powerful lineup

January 15, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Chris Sabo, who built a reputation as a working man's third baseman during six years with the Cincinnati Reds, yesterday became the third free agent to join the Orioles this off-season.

After several weeks of tedious negotiations the Orioles outlasted, but did not outbid, the New York Mets for their latest acquisition. Sabo accepted a one-year contract that is guaranteed for $2 million and includes incentives that could easily net him another $400,000.

Although neither side would disclose specifics, the Mets offered Sabo more money and a clause that could have guaranteed a second year. But Sabo, a week from his 32nd birthday, said the opportunity to play on a championship team was his primary concern.

"It was the only deciding factor as far as I was concerned," Sabo said last night. "I'm very excited. Once I couldn't re-sign with the Reds, Baltimore was where I wanted to play.

"They have a chance to win -- and it came down to that. I've done it once, in 1990 [when the Reds won the World Series] and I want to do it again. I played on a bad team last year, and I don't want to do it again."

Jim Bronner, the agent who conducted negotiations for Sabo, and Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine confirmed that the Orioles didn't make the top bid. "The deciding factor for Chris obviously was the chance to play on a team capable of winning a championship rather than one in a rebuilding mode," said Bronner.

"The Mets offered a substantially larger package that could have resulted in a multi-year contract. But he [Sabo] had it in his mind early on that he wanted to go to Baltimore and it took a while to get the Orioles' interest to a level where he felt he could afford to do it.

"The big thing was that Chris will not be subject to repeater rights next year and can become an unrestricted free agent. What that hopefully will lead to is a multi-year contract with the Orioles if everything goes right."

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who concluded negotiations yesterday, and manager Johnny Oates, expressed elation at yesterday's announcement. "It's very nice to be able to add a player as intense and aggressive as Sabo," said Hemond. "He's a tough hombre who reminds me a lot of [former White Sox and Angels outfielder] Brian Downing."

Oates said he didn't know where Sabo would bat in the Orioles' lineup, but he was happy the club could improve its depth and defense. "It's exciting to get this done," he said.

"From what I know, he's a gung-ho guy who doesn't mind getting his uniform dirty," Oates said of Sabo, who hit .259 with 21 homers and 82 RBIs last season. "I like that."

Neither Hemond nor Oates would speculate on the status of Leo Gomez, but it would appear the third baseman could become part of a trade for a starting pitcher. "It adds to the competition, obviously," said Hemond. "But Leo is still on our club. He could play some at third, or as a right-handed DH. Competition is something we like."

Oates said he's been writing down some potential lineups, and like what he sees.

"The every day lineup looks pretty good, but we still have to add to our depth," said Oates.

It would appear that Sabo could bat seventh. Oates said he likes the idea of having Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux hitting in the first two spots, where they excelled two years ago.

Behind those two, Oates will juggle Rafael Palmeiro, Cal Ripken, Harold Baines, Chris Hoiles and Sabo, with Jeffrey Hammonds and Mark McLemore currently penciled in to bat eighth and ninth. It is a lineup that has a lot of offensive potential, and is the primary reason Sabo decided to sign with the Orioles.

"It is a nice feather in Baltimore's cap," McIlvaine said from New York. "I don't think he wanted to leave the National League, which was in our favor. We offered him more money, but the deciding factor was that he felt the Orioles were closer to winning than we were."

The Mets, who lost 103 games last season, offered a variety of packages, Bronner said. One of them could have produced more than $7 million over two years, with the second year taking effect depending on Sabo's playing time.

Some Mets officials seemed stunned Sabo opted for the Orioles' offer.

"We were in it to the end," Ed Lynch, assistant to McIlvaine, told The New York Times. "We made a very competitive offer. We are disappointed."

A .268 career hitter who has averaged 17 homers and 60 RBIs during his career, Sabo was considered something of a physical risk because a bulging disk in his lower back forced him on to the disabled list for two weeks last season.

But only twice has he failed to play at least 137 games -- in 1989, his second year, when he played only 82, and the year before last, when he performed in 96 games. Despite the time on the disabled list last season, Sabo still played 148 games.

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