O's closed: Olson goes to Braves

February 09, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Free-agent reliever Gregg Olson got a sweet pitch and took it yesterday, but it was the Orioles who were caught looking.

Olson signed a one-year contract to join an already star-studded Atlanta Braves pitching staff and end a five-year Orioles career in which he became the most productive closer in club history.

The deal calls for only a $500,000 guarantee, but Olson would receive another $1 million for being on the Braves' Opening Day roster and an incentive package that could bring his total salary to $3.5 million if he pitched in 60 games.

The Braves addressed his uncertain physical status by assigning an incentive bonus to every appearance up to a maximum of 60. Olson would receive $25,000 for each of his first 40 games and $50,000 for the next 20, or a total of $2 million if he is healthy enough to pitch regularly. The contract also includes a package of awards bonuses.

"In the end, the opportunity to join a championship club like the Braves with a tremendous pitching staff and a commitment to winning over several years, it was an opportunity too good to pass up," said agent Jeff Moorad. "Of course, Gregg moves on from the Orioles with mixed feelings. It was certainly his intent to pitch for Baltimore for his entire career."

The acquisition of Olson gives the Braves the potential for an unstoppable pitching staff. They already had the best starting rotation in baseball, which features Cy Young Award winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as well as postseason standout John Smoltz and hard-throwing Steve Avery. A healthy Olson would make the bullpen similarly imposing.

"It wasn't really a money thing," Olson said. "I took the situation in Atlanta because there was the chance to be the closer. I'm just glad this is over."

He joins solid relievers Mike Stanton and Greg McMichael, who combined for 46 saves and played a significant role in the Braves' third straight division championship. Olson, however, would be the closer if he rebounded from the elbow injury that limited him to one appearance in the last two months of the 1993 season.

"We were interested from the very beginning," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said yesterday, "assuming we could structure a deal that was comfortable for us and gave us some sort of risk/reward scenario. We've done that, and it gives Gregg the same things."

Olson has been one of the game's best closers since he saved 27 games and was American League Rookie of the Year in 1989. He went on to become the youngest pitcher to register 100 saves and quickly surpassed Tippy Martinez to become the Orioles' all-time saves leader. But a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, coupled with his service time and arbitration eligibility, prompted the club to leave him untendered on the Dec. 20 deadline for sending out contracts.

The Orioles offered Olson, 27, a one-year contract with a $1 million guarantee and another $800,000 in incentives just hours before allowing Olson to become a free agent, then moved to the sidelines while Moorad negotiated with a handful of clubs.

If it appears that the Orioles were intransigent, however, general manager Roland Hemond indicated that they might have been willing to increase the incentives substantially if they had not been overwhelmed by Olson's original asking price.

Moorad asked for a package that would have paid Olson a $1 million guarantee, a $1 million installment March 20 and further salary and incentives that could have pushed him close to $4 million if he were healthy all season. The Orioles essentially withdrew from active negotiations at that point.

"I'm sure that the club would have been prepared to talk about additional incentives -- far more than the $800,000 if he had performed and performed well throughout the season," Hemond said. "But when you're told the guarantee has to be in a certain bracket, there's no use talking any more.

"If the initial guarantee had made sense, then you can talk about more incentives. If they knock your socks off, there is no use in negotiating."

Moorad and Olson chose not to dredge up any disharmony on their way out of Baltimore, but it appears that they also were polarized by the Orioles' initial offer. The club, still smarting from the $10 million Glenn Davis debacle, felt that Olson's sore elbow presented too great a risk. Perhaps if both sides had kept the lines of communication open, the improving medical reports might have paved the way for a settlement.

"Jeff [Moorad] said the opportunity in Atlanta was attractive to them," Hemond said. "We certainly wish Gregg continued success and are appreciative of the excellent work he did for us."

"There will always be some disappointment in our minds about the way this stage of Gregg's career came to an end," Moorad said. "It was certainly Gregg's intent to pitch for Baltimore for his entire career, but at this stage, he and I felt the new challenge of going to the Braves was something that he had to grab."

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