O's $1 million pitch fair one for Olson

February 08, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles offered Gregg Olson a $1 million guarantee, and the chance to earn more than $3 million through incentives. Now it appears Olson will leave Baltimore for a similar deal. Please, hold your tears.

The Orioles didn't mistreat Olson. They offered him $1 million knowing he might never pitch again, knowing they might lose him as a free agent after this season, knowing they had other short- and long-term options.

Let's see what Olson gets from his new team -- most likely Atlanta, but perhaps Toronto or the New York Yankees. If the guaranteed money is comparable, history will show that the Orioles' original offer was fair market value.

So, who's spurning whom?

Olson had no choice but to test the free-agent market after the Orioles declined to offer him a contract. And the Orioles had no choice but to sign Lee Smith the moment it appeared they would lose their all-time save leader to another club.

Olson's agent, Jeff Moorad, created that impression nearly a month ago when he said a dozen teams were interested in his client, including three that had made multi-year offers. Now Atlanta appears ready to sign Olson, but on what terms?

California, the only club to acknowledge making a long-term proposal, unexpectedly dropped out of the bidding last week. Philadelphia also showed interest in Olson, but signed Norm Charlton instead.

Think about that. Charlton is coming off elbow surgery. He probably won't be available until August. Yet, the Phillies still judged him a safer risk than Olson, who is recovering from a partially torn elbow ligament.

How can Olson be good enough for Atlanta, a team that has won three straight NL West titles, but not good enough for the Orioles? Because the Braves might have won a World Series by now if they had a quality closer, and they're uniquely equipped to take this chance.

Atlanta tried to acquire Florida's Bryan Harvey earlier this winter, but didn't want to part with at least two major-leaguers -- reportedly reliever Mark Wohlers and first baseman Ryan Klesko -- plus the $7.5 million Harvey is guaranteed over the next two seasons.

Olson would come much cheaper, and the Braves won't lose so much as a draft pick if they sign him. No wonder general manager John Schuerholz is intrigued. If Olson breaks down, his team can always return to a bullpen-by-committee, alternating Wohlers, Mike Stanton and Greg McMichael.

Thus, the Braves and Orioles come at this from almost opposite perspectives -- Olson is a relatively small gamble for the Braves, a championship team seeking to hold down its payroll, but a considerable risk for the Orioles, a rising team that just spent millions to become a contender.

It's not that the Orioles are turning stingy -- they would have signed another closer even if Olson had accepted their original offer. It's not even that Smith is a sure thing -- the Yankees didn't try to re-sign him, and the Braves didn't want him, either.

Indeed, Smith allowed more homers last season (11) than Olson has allowed in his five-year career (10). But for one season, the Orioles believe the game's all-time save leader will be more productive than a pitcher whose elbow could blow out at any moment.

Is that so unreasonable?

Besides, even if Olson returned, even if he were healthy, even if he earned 40 saves, he might not have remained in Baltimore beyond this season. The bidding on the free-agent market would have been intense. And the Orioles, with four potential young closers, might not have offered him a multi-year contract.

The future could be Alan Mills or Brad Pennington. It could be Armando Benitez. It could be Jay Powell. But it's difficult to imagine how it could have been Olson, given his medical history, his likely asking price, even his rocky past with Orioles fans and manager Johnny Oates.

As Orioles assistant GM Doug Melvin said, "If he were a fourth-year player instead of a fifth-year player, it might have been a different story." In that case, the Orioles might have offered him salary arbitration to begin with, knowing he was bound to them for two seasons.

Now, they'll just turn to Smith. After this season, Mills or Pennington might be ready to become the closer. If not, the Orioles can wait for Benitez, who averaged 15.04 strikeouts per nine innings at Single-A last season. Or they eventually could try Powell, the No. 1 draft pick they're converting into a starter.

It's painful to say goodbye to the Otter, but you can't fault the Orioles for making a judgment call. Let's see what the Braves give Olson. Let's see how he performs this season. Let's see if the Orioles' $1 million offer wasn't so unreasonable after all.

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