Johnson and Ripken already tuned to same station



In his short tenure as manager of the Orioles, Phil Regan had a distant relationship with shortstop Cal Ripken. Cordial. Nothing more and nothing less, it seemed.

Regan instituted changes in the team's cutoff plays last spring before talking with Ripken, who had been cutting off throws for the Orioles for more than a dozen years. That led to confusion, which teammates Mike Mussina and Chris Hoiles, in retrospect said was the first sign of communication trouble between manager and players.

Right away, Davey Johnson appears intent on closing that gulf, and he has started at the top of the Orioles' hierarchy. Two days after being introduced as Regan's successor, Johnson called Ripken.

"I tried calling him the day I got the job," Johnson said, "but I couldn't get him. I tried him again the next day, and I had to go to the [Florida] Keys. The next day, he called me, and we talked about baseball for an hour. We could've talked for two."

They talked about the team, the players. Ripken, Johnson said, told him that Bobby Bonilla had done a good job at third base in the final weeks of the season. "He talked about how Bobby changed his positioning, playing a little more shallow, and how that helped," Johnson said.

Johnson wants to talk to Mussina and others. He will attend the general manager meetings that start tomorrow in Arizona. This is a time, he said, for "information gathering. We'll try to look at the whole picture.

"It's not a good time to be slotting guys into certain spots [on the roster], deciding who will do what for you. We're three months way from spring training. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to lock yourself into something."

It makes complete sense, however, to ask your established, respected players for input -- and to start with your most established and most respected.

Waiting game

The off-season strategy adopted by most teams this year will be to sit and wait, and wait and wait. They will wait for the salary demands of free agents to plummet, as they did at the end of spring training this year, and they will wait for the free-agent market to be flooded with players who aren't tendered contracts. The Orioles, for instance, likely won't tender second baseman Bret Barberie a contract, and may offer deals to pitchers Ben McDonald and Alan Mills and third baseman Leo Gomez only if they agree to substantial reductions in pay.

"We'll all be waiting like vultures," said Philadelphia GM Lee Thomas.

But something the Orioles and other big-money teams should think about is making pre-emptive strikes. Right now, players are worried about the garne's financial climate.

Rockies left fielder Dante Bichette is a solid candidate to win the National League MVP award after a career year, and he accepted a three-year, $11 million contract -- the average of which is only slightly more than what he made in 1995. San Diego third baseman Ken Caminiti and Padres center fielder Steve Finley, who both had great seasons, agreed to contract extensions with deep cuts in their salaries.

The Orioles may want to think about making a quick offer to, say, Houston second baseman Craig Biggio, who earned $4 million it 1995. Dangle a three-year deal for $10.5 million-the kind of con tract Biggio might not get later it the year, and certainly not from the financially strapped Astros.

In this way, the Orioles could snap up a couple of primo players at reduced salaries, with little competition from other clubs. Later in the off-season, free agents such as Biggio and Ron Gant could have a lot more suitors.

Chasing after pitchers in this manner, however, makes little sense; there are so many pitchers on the market that the prices will come down naturally. Biggio, on the other hand, is one of only two big-time second base free agents the other being Roberto Alomar.

The Orioles could wait, like everyone else. But they have the resources to be different.

Alomar in catbird's seat

Alomar has said he wants a three-year deal, for about $5 million a year. This way, he could become a free agent again in three years, at the ripe old age of 30, and hit the market again at the prime of his career. By then, baseball's salary structure may have stabilized, and Alomar could get one of those mega-deals signed by Barry Bonds, Juan Gonzalez and Cecil Fielder.

* The Orioles should offer Mills a contract (they could tender a 20 percent reduction in his '95 salary, or $480,000, or an even greater cut, if he agrees). His arm is too good and his potential is still intriguing. Mills suffered greatly because of the lack of depth in the Orioles' bullpen, pitching until his arm began to hurt.

A possible steal

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