O's close to signing Franco

March 07, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's just one more thing being held up by the strike: The Orioles are close to signing free-agent reliever John Franco, who saved 30 games for the New York Mets last season.

The Orioles have offered Franco, 34, a two-year deal worth more than $2 million per year, according to baseball sources.

Whenever the so-called signing freeze is lifted by the owners, the Mets are expected to take one last run at re-signing Franco, a native of New York. But, one source said, Franco is leaning toward accepting the contract with the Orioles, and actually was close to completing the deal with Baltimore in mid-February, when the signing freeze went into effect.

Signing Franco would fill a major void in the Orioles' pitching staff. Lee Smith saved 29 games for the Orioles before the All-Star Game, but faded in the last weeks before the strike. Smith's ERA after the All-Star Game was 8.53, and the Orioles allowed him to leave as a free agent.

New manager Phil Regan has said he would like to give rookie Armando Benitez a chance to be a closer this season, a strategy that may be risky in the competitive AL East.

If he is healthy, Franco could give Benitez a window of time in which to develop, first as a setup man.

Franco saved at least 29 games per year from 1986 to 1991, including a career-high 39 in 1988. But midway through the 1992 season he began to have elbow trouble, and was limited to 69 1/3 innings over two years.

Last year Franco rebounded, pitching 50 innings in 47 games before the strike, compiling an ERA of 2.70. He saved 11 games in 13 appearances after the All-Star break. His effectiveness, like Smith's, was proportional to his rest. When he pitched with three or more days' rest, his ERA was 1.38; with one or two days' rest, it was 2.96; with no rest day, it was 3.55.

The Orioles already have a five-year, $17.5 million deal with catcher Chris Hoiles that is expected to take effect after the strike is resolved. They also have negotiated at length with outfielder Andy Van Slyke, although Regan's affinity for rookie center fielder Curtis Goodwin seems to have tempered the Orioles' interest in the former Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star.

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