Cardinals, Orioles at top of Benes' wish list

BASEBALL

March 05, 1995|By BUSTER OLNEY

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If a labor agreement is ever reached and the rules allow San Diego Padres pitcher Andy Benes to become a free agent, he is sure of one thing.

"I won't be back with the Padres," said Benes, whose desire for a five-year contract is at odds with San Diego's desire to limit the contracts of pitchers to three years.

So where then for Benes, who led the National League in strikeouts in 1994? Well, the idea of playing in the Midwest, in St. Louis, appeals to Benes, a native of Evansville, Ind. It doesn't hurt, either, that his brother Alan is a top prospect in the St. Louis organization.

But Benes isn't sure if the Cardi- nals will give him a five-year deal, either. St. Louis already made a substantial investment in its pitching staff this off-season, giving Danny Jackson a three-year, $11 million contract.

Benes' second choice?

Baltimore.

"I think it would be exciting to play for them," Benes said of the Orioles. "If I could pick one place to play, for atmosphere, that would be it. In January, my agent [Scott Boras] was talking to me about which teams I would want to include in a no-trade clause in my next contract.

"I pretty much knocked off all the teams in the East -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal. Baltimore was the only one I was interested in."

The feeling is mutual. Speaking of potential free agents early in spring, Orioles manager Phil Regan raved about Benes. But owner Peter Angelos may have to wait a year before getting his first shot at Benes, who, under baseball's current formula of free agency, is tied to the Padres through 1995.

That could change. Several general managers and agents polled last week said that players with more than five years of service will get free agency under a new agreement. Benes has five years and 13 days.

If money is no obstacle -- and, since Angelos bought the team, it hasn't been -- signing Benes to a five-year contract makes some sense. He is 27, he's extremely durable (Benes never has missed a start) and he's an exceptional talent, with a fastball consistently clocked at 90-92 mph and a sharp slider. Adding Benes to a rotation of Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina, Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes would give the Orioles, at the very least, the most imposing staff in the league, and very likely the best.

Boras wondered aloud last week, "Do you think they would do that, keep McDonald and sign Benes?"

He paused.

"Wow," he said. "That would be something."

Benes said, "That would be extremely interesting."

Don't forget that signing Benes would afford Angelos a bit of one-upmanship, a heavy-handed response to former Orioles president Larry Lucchino and his hiring of four Orioles employees in San Diego.

Take our assistant scouting director, eh? Well, we'll just take your best pitcher.

But there would be risks, particularly in giving Benes a five-year deal and the $20 million to $24 million likely required for a contract of such length.

In spite of his ability, Benes hasn't had a breakthrough-type season. His lifetime record is 65-68, his ERA 3.51. Playing for lousy teams has undoubtedly hurt him; San Diego had the majors' worst defense in 1994, and the worst middle defense the past two years.

Last season, however, Benes consistently pitched just well enough to lose. If the Padres scored two runs, he would give up three. If they staked him to a 4-0 lead, he would give up five runs. Benes led the NL in losses in '94, going 6-14.

During this off-season, veteran right fielder Tony Gwynn criticized Benes, saying that he let himself get distracted by his contract situation and his union work as player representative. This occurred, Gwynn said, "a lot more than we'd like to think about."

One NL manager privately agrees with Gwynn. But he also thinks that playing in a different atmosphere, for a winning club, would benefit Benes tremendously.

"If he had some veteran players behind him," the manager said, "he would concentrate better. I think it was tough on him the last couple of years, pitching in games that really didn't mean anything in the standings."

Angelos would have something else to think about: Is he ready to give McDonald the same type of contract as he gives Benes?

Benes and McDonald are about the same age. They have had similar records (McDonald's career numbers are 55-47, 3.86). They are both former No. 1 picks. McDonald has four years and 114 days of service time, but could reach five years if the days lost to the strike are reinstated through collective bargaining.

And, most important of all, Benes and McDonald employ the same agent. Boras undoubtedly would use one client to help the other. If, for example, Angelos gives Benes a five-year contract for $22.5 million, then he'll have to offer McDonald something close to that. Signing Benes and losing McDonald really does nothing to improve the team.

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