O's look to Smith as savior

January 30, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer Staff writer Ken Rosenthal contributed to this article.

For the fourth time this off-season,the Orioles ventured into the free-agent market yesterday with a move that could be their biggest risk of the year.

Lee Smith, baseball's all-time leader with 401 saves, signed a one-year contract that almost certainly guaranteed the departure Gregg Olson. The surprising announcement came during the club's annual Winter Carnival at Camden Yards and was made before a crowd of several hundred fans who were unaware of the nature of the news conference.

By signing Smith, the Orioles are gambling that the 36-year-old can provide a better insurance policy than the 27-year-old Olson.

After announcing yesterday's signing, Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said the Orioles had not closed the door on negotiations with Olson, whose elbow injury last August left the club leery of his physical condition. But there is little doubt that Smith was signed to be the closer, and that Olson will now take one of several offers to go elsewhere.

After rejecting the latest proposal by Jeff Moorad, the agent who represents Olson, the Orioles quickly moved to out-maneuver the Cleveland Indians to sign Smith.

"Jeff had indicated he wanted to get something done by next week," said Hemond, "but it was getting to the 11th hour [with Smith] and it was important that we do something if we weren't going to be able to sign Gregg."

Hemond was unable to reach Moorad, who is in Atlanta for the Super Bowl, or Olson, who was doing a clinic in Virginia, before announcing the signing of Smith. He still had not talked to Olson last night, but eventually did contact Moorad.

"I told Jeff if they were interested, we were still willing to talk," said Hemond. "I think we'll talk again this week."

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who gave the go-ahead on the Smith deal, also said that Olson could return.

"The door will always be open to Gregg Olson, and I hope to have the chance to tell him that in person," Angelos said. "But we had to make a move."

However, based on Moorad's reaction to yesterday's news, it would appear any further talk with the Orioles will be a mere formality. Advised of Smith's signing while playing host to a Super Bowl party, Moorad gave every indication that Olson wouldn't return to the Orioles.

"I talked to Roland at length about Gregg yesterday [Friday]," said Moorad. "It became obvious that they [the Orioles] were not interested in adjusting the position they had taken prior to the tender deadline.

"I had made a proposal which they discussed internally and they came back and said, 'If you can get that proposal elsewhere, you should take it.'

"I said, 'I didn't get that proposal elsewhere,' only that I was making a similar proposal to other teams involved."

The Orioles' offer to Olson was similar to some others he has received -- for about $1 million guaranteed, plus substantial incentive and award bonuses. It is believed that the counter-proposal that was rejected by the club asked for a $1 million signing bonus and $1.5 million salary, plus incentives.

Although unaware of the negotiations with Smith, which didn't intensify until early last week, Moorad said he sensed the Orioles were looking at alternatives.

"There was obviously another factor in their discussions that I wasn't aware of," said Moorad.

"I pressured Roland on the issue of whether they were interested in making an offer at all. He gave me the impression he was not. I called Gregg last [Friday] night and told him the Orioles were not interested in investing the original offer [made before the Dec. 20 deadline to tender contracts] and that we needed to consider the other teams involved in a more serious way."

Hemond acknowledged that the Orioles altered their position last week.

"I'm not going to get into specifics," he said when asked if the Orioles' offer was still on the table.

"But when it began to look as though we wouldn't be able to sign Gregg, we started looking at alternatives," said Hemond. "And we came to the conclusion that Lee Smith was the best available one [closer] out there. His numbers speak for themselves."

But even Smith admits that his numbers from last year sent a mixed message.

"I thought I had a decent year with 46 saves," he said, "but 11 home runs [in 58 innings] is not very good for a closer, and I wasn't happy with my earned run average [4.50 in 50 games with the Cardinals, 3.88 overall]."

Smith said the Orioles' offer was not the best he had -- "they and Cleveland were about the same" -- but he felt it presented the best situation.

"I looked at the starters and the overall club, and I thought this was the best opportunity," said Smith. "I just want to prove that I can still do the job."

The Orioles are investing a good part of their immediate future that he can.

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