Gillick flashes signs, but still lacks new backup catcher O's search turns to Knorr, but A's appear in lead

January 31, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Pat Gillick's days are just as frenetic as they were in December, when the Orioles general manager pieced together a contender. But there are fewer calls to agents now, and more promotional appearances. Less time spent negotiating with free agents, more time making speeches.

Two weeks away from the start of spring training, there's little work to do with the major-league team, other than some fine-tuning. The Orioles want to acquire a backup catcher, a left-handed hitter for the bench, and they continue to talk to the agent for free-agent reliever Mike Jackson, hoping he'll slide into their price range.

"We're not in any real rush to do anything right now," said assistant GM Kevin Malone. "These are things that we could be looking at right to the end of spring training."

Gillick indicated that finding a backup catcher is his current priority, although he is running out of options. He's talked with Scott Boras, the agent for catchers Benito Santiago and Joe Oliver, and Boras sought everyday jobs -- and everyday wages -- for his clients.

Santiago signed with the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday for a base salary of $1.1 million. Oliver continues to talk with the California Angels, among other clubs, and Boras indicated Monday night he didn't think Oliver would land with the Orioles.

The Orioles would prefer to pay their backup in the range of $350,000-$400,000. Enter Randy Knorr, a Toronto catcher who lost favor with Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston last season.

Knorr, 27, batted .212 with three homers in 45 games for the Blue Jays. He threw out 10 of 50 runners attempting to steal last year, 20 percent, but his ability to catch and throw is generally considered to be the strength of his game.

The price is right for the Orioles: Knorr will make $280,000 in 1996. But a Blue Jays source indicated yesterday that Toronto is discussing Knorr with at least three other teams, and that the Oakland Athletics appeared to be the front-runner. The Orioles, according to the source, aren't offering enough trade bait for consideration. If they don't acquire another catcher, Greg Zaun likely would begin the year as the backup.

The agent for free-agent outfielder Luis Polonia called Gillick on Monday to make a pitch for his client, and Gillick isn't interested. But the Orioles GM acknowledged he would like to get ... 3/8 ... 3/8 TC left-handed hitter for the bench, preferably someone with a little power. Right now, the Orioles' primary left-handed hitter on their bench is infielder Jeff Huson.

Shortly after assuming control of the Orioles in November, Gillick offered a one-year deal to reliever Jackson worth slightly more than $1 million, and Jackson's agent asked for more than twice that amount. Last week, Gillick said, the agent called back to see if Gillick's offer is on the table. It isn't.

"We just don't have that kind of money available anymore," Gillick said.

The Orioles still could land Jackson, assuming his price tag continues to plummet. Jackson pitched last season in Cincinnati for Orioles manager Davey Johnson, who did well to protect Jackson's fragile right elbow; Jackson pitched only 49 innings in 40 appearances.

The Orioles will talk to Cuban pitchers Vladimir Nunez and Larry Rodriguiez, both right-handers, but the bidding won't be as rabid for these two defectors as it has for others this off-season. Nunez and Rodriguiez are considered average prospects who likely will begin this year in Single-A.

"If they were eligible for the draft, we'd have one guy slotted for about the fourth round, the other for the eighth round," said one major-league executive. "These guys have a long ways to go before you can really start taking them seriously."

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