The Orioles offered a three-year contract to free-agent pitcher David Cone yesterday in an attempt to bolster their own rotation and keep Cone from signing with the rival New York Yankees.
Orioles general manager Pat Gillick forwarded the offer in a conversation with Cone's agent, Steve Fehr. Gillick would not elaborate on the financial terms, but according to a source familiar with the negotiations, the offer was for between $5 million and $5.5 million a year on average.
The offer likely is heavy in deferred salary, which would allow the Orioles to pay more money after 1997, the second year of the contract. The Orioles have contractual obligations with only two players in 1998, catcher Chris Hoiles and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.
"I thought we had a good talk," said Gillick. "We'll probably talk again Monday. I think he's working toward completing something. Tuesday, probably."
That time frame would leave a window of opportunity for Cone to follow through on his initial desire to meet Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who returns from an overseas business trip tonight. "I don't know if [Cone] still wants to," Gillick said.
Fehr effectively denied a published report that Cone agreed to a three-year, $18.3 million deal with the Yankees in a four-hour meeting with New York owner George Steinbrenner on Friday. An American League source said yesterday Yankees officials believe they have "a 75 percent chance" of landing Cone.
Fehr told the New York Times yesterday: "Not only didn't the Orioles withdraw, we had substantive discussions with them by phone today as well as yesterday. The Orioles are seriously interested. Less than an hour ago, I had the most substantive discussion with the Orioles I've had to date."
Gillick doesn't have any left-handers in his rotation and, all things being equal, he'd like to add at least one. But, as he noted, signing an All-Star pitcher such as Cone could be better than any available lefty.
"Our focus has been pitching," he said. "We want to get our pitching in shape. He's probably the No. 1 guy out there. . . . I'd like to have a No. 1 and No. 2 like Mike Mussina and David Cone."
Fehr also said Cone has eliminated the Florida Marlins from consideration and will decide this week between the Orioles and Yankees.
On other Orioles fronts:
* The agent for Ben McDonald denied a published report that the Orioles rejected a $3.5 million proposal on a one-year contract for the pitcher. Scott Boras said he and Gillick have discussed only general parameters, and no such proposal was made.
"I don't know what they're going to do," said Boras, who argued that in the history of the game, players coming back from injury aren't usually asked to take a reduction in salary. The Orioles want McDonald to accept a major cut in his $4.5 million salary of a year ago.
Boras said, "Ben McDonald has been very fair. . . . Ben said, 'Hey, I'll take a bit of a cut to get back with Baltimore. I just want a chance to get it back in incentives.' "
Gillick said he and manager Davey Johnson have talked to McDonald and told him they'd like him back with the Orioles. "But really, it's got to be in a certain [financial] area," Gillick said. "We're not in that area."
Club sources have indicated the Orioles would be interested in retaining McDonald for a base salary of something around $2.5 million, with incentives. If they cannot negotiate a '96 contract, they must tender him a contract for at least $3.6 million by Wednesday, trade or release him.
* The Orioles will play host to free-agent Cuban pitchers Livan Hernandez and Osvaldo Fernandez sometime between Jan. 2 and Jan. 7. The Orioles, who will forfeit their first two picks in next June's draft if they sign second baseman Roberto Alomar and pitcher Kenny Rogers, may approach negotiations with the Cuban duo as if they were negotiating with their top draft selections. In other words, they may be willing to spend big money.
* Alvie Shepherd, the Orioles' No. 1 pick in 1995, pitched the final 1 1/3 innings and earned the save Friday night as Maui clinched the championship of the Hawaiian winter league.
* Orioles reliever Armando Benitez and outfielder Sherman Obando were selected to participate in the Dominican League All-Star Game held yesterday.