Orioles check swing, usher out Bonilla Decline OF arbitration as club makes priority of pitching, defense

Orosco only 1 of 4 retained

Hamilton eyed in CF, Steinbach at catcher

November 16, 1996|By Buster Olney and Jason LaCanfora | Buster Olney and Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Bobby Bonilla, who drove in 162 runs in only 220 games for the Orioles, became a free agent yesterday after the team declined to offer him salary arbitration.

This is the strongest evidence to date the front office is trying to alter the team into a club built on defense and pitching, rather than power hitting. General manager Pat Gillick intends to take the money needed to keep Bonilla -- around $5.5 million per year -- and invest it in the likes of pitchers John Smoltz or Jaime Navarro or center fielder Darryl Hamilton.

As expected, the Orioles offered arbitration to left-hander Jesse Orosco, ensuring he'll return in 1997, and did not offer arbitration to designated hitter Eddie Murray and catcher Mark Parent. The Orioles held what is referred to as "repeater rights" on the four players, and could've kept any of them by offering arbitration.

Other developments that could affect the makeup of the '97 Orioles: Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone have arranged a meeting next week with the agent for Hamilton, 32, who obviously has become a priority.

Oakland declined to offer salary arbitration to catcher Terry Steinbach, making him a free agent. The Orioles will look into signing Steinbach, who has other offers but is a great admirer of Cal Ripken. Malone confirmed yesterday the Orioles are looking for a catcher, from a group that includes Steinbach, Joe Girardi, Tom Pagnozzi, Benito Santiago and Kirt Manwaring.

Smoltz has received at least one serious offer from another team, possibly Florida or Cleveland, which may expedite his negotiations with Atlanta. Orioles officials have not yet formulated an offer for the NL Cy Young Award winner, but expect to soon. Malone gauged the Orioles' chances of signing Smoltz at "15 percent."

The Yankees must decide today whether to offer salary arbitration to left-hander Jimmy Key, who would certainly be pursued by the Orioles. In New York it is thought the Yankees won't offer Key arbitration.

The Orioles have expressed interest in former Minnesota Twins outfielder Shane Mack, who has played in Japan in recent years. Mack is probably a contingency plan, in the event negotiations with Hamilton prove fruitless.

The agent for shortstop Kevin Elster, a player the Orioles are thinking about signing, said Elster is looking for a two-year deal for about $3 million per year. "Kevin is going to be a bargain for somebody," said Patrick Elster, the shortstop's agent and brother. "When you look strictly at last year and compare their numbers, Kevin probably compares closest to Cal Ripken. Cal makes $6.5 million."

The Orioles have had very cursory trade talks for Toronto catcher Charlie O'Brien and Colorado shortstop Walt Weiss, among others. In almost everything they are trying to do, the Orioles' focus has seemed to be on pitching and defense, defense and pitching, and less on the power hitters -- like Bonilla.

The potential commitment to Bonilla, said Malone, "would've limited our options to improve the club if we offered him arbitration. We're going to explore other options, and we're not exactly sure what it's going to take."

Malone would not rule out the possibility of Bonilla, Murray or Parent eventually re-signing with the Orioles. But there is virtually no chance Bonilla, who is being pursued by several National League clubs, will come back. Acquired from the New York Mets July 28, 1995, for young outfielders Alex Ochoa and Damon Buford, Bonilla batted .333 in the Orioles' final 61 games in '95, and won many fans -- including owner Peter Angelos.

When new manager Davey Johnson told Bonilla at the end of spring training he wanted to employ him as a designated hitter, Bonilla expressed reservations. When his average sank below .200, Bonilla angrily criticized Johnson for not playing him in the field, and the relationship between player and manager never improved. The Orioles strongly considered several trades for Bonilla, before Angelos stepped in at the end of July and vetoed proposals involving Bonilla and David Wells.

With all the trade rumors put to rest and playing in right field, Bonilla hit well down the stretch, and he hit a grand slam to help the Orioles beat Cleveland in the Division Series. Bonilla went 1-for-20 in the AL Championship Series, a performance that probably ended any chance of his returning to the Orioles.

The San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and the Marlins are among those teams expected to compete for his services. San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean, who privately assured Barry Bonds he would do everything to sign Bonilla, Bonds' close friend, said yesterday, "We do have an advantage because we do have Barry. They want to play together."

Sabean was asked if Bonds would be used to lure Bonilla. "We'll do everything we can in order to get him."

Like offer him a multi-year deal, which the Orioles probably won't do, or assure Bonilla he won't have to play for Johnson, which the Orioles can't do.

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