O's look for battery to provide a charge 5 pitchers, 2 catchers on team's top-10 list in free-agent chase

November 17, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and assistant Kevin Malone will draw up a free-agent wish list sometime in the next few days, like children writing requests for Santa Claus.

The list compiled by the Orioles' officials will be a little more complicated than a recitation of toys and video games, however. This list will be molded within financial parameters -- presumably, owner Peter Angelos will establish these -- and full of contingency plans. And it will look something like this:

1. Pitcher John Smoltz

Imagine Smoltz, 29, using his slider to strike out New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams in a big Camden Yards series in September. Imagine the Orioles countering Andy Pettitte and David Cone with Smoltz and Mike Mussina.

Now forget about it. Malone guesses the Orioles have about a 15 percent chance of signing Smoltz, but it's probably closer to 1.5 percent. The Cy Young Award winner has built a house in Atlanta, where he is comfortable, and he has strong friendships on the Braves. The only chance for the Orioles will develop if Atlanta, which must re-sign Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux after next year, decides it doesn't want to pay Smoltz $6.5 million to $7 million a year.

Boston Red Sox veteran Roger Clemens is in this category, too, attractive to the Orioles but virtually unsignable.

2. Pitcher Jaime Navarro

He is the best pitcher available after Smoltz. At 29, and coming off a solid season in which he went 15-12 with a 3.92 ERA for the Chicago Cubs, Navarro has pitched 200 or more innings in five of the past six seasons. And the Orioles won't have to set any financial records to sign him (though Angelos has been willing to spend a lot of money, he usually shies from setting salary standards).

Navarro probably will command a three- or four-year contract, at around $4.5 million a year. The Orioles can sign him without necessarily driving up the price for Mussina, who will be eligible for free agency after next season.

3. Center fielder Darryl Hamilton

The Orioles wanted Brian McRae badly. But once McRae re-signed with the Cubs, Hamilton became the only pure center fielder remaining on the market. Beyond him, there is a collection of corner outfielders, role players such as Mark Carreon and Willie McGee.

Hamilton, who will be 32 next season, had a poor season in '95. So he gambled and signed a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers, hoping to re-establish his value and test the free-agent market again after the '96 season. The gamble paid off: He hit .293 and scored 94 runs. Gillick and Malone are meeting with his agent this week, and if they can sign him, Brady Anderson would be shifted to left field, and probably dropped into the middle of the batting order. If the Orioles can't sign Hamilton, Anderson probably would stay in center, and the Orioles would have to go after somebody such as Shane Mack.

4. Pitcher David Wells

The Orioles would like Wells, who demonstrated the ability to be a big-game pitcher, to return. What the Orioles don't know is how much it's going to take to re-sign the left-hander, who wants a three-year contract at around $4 million a year. The Cubs and Cleveland Indians, among others, are expected to court Wells, and they'll drive up the price.

5. Catcher Terry Steinbach

He's the best available, a great handler of pitchers, and he hit 35 homers last season. Oakland cut him free Friday, leery of the $4 million-plus Steinbach would have commanded in arbitration. He could get something close to that in the free-agent market, and has said in the past the Orioles are a team he would consider.

But the Minnesota Twins are expected to pursue Steinbach, who lives a few miles from the Metrodome. He might decide to play at home, as Paul Molitor did. The Colorado Rockies are another potential suitor. It's a long shot the Orioles will explore.

6. Shortstop Walt Weiss

Property of the Rockies, he is available in a trade, steady defensively and a strong fundamental player. He would come relatively cheap, $2.05 million in 1997, plus a $1.5 million option for 1998. He is proven, something that's going to be important for whoever replaces Cal Ripken at shortstop.

But the Orioles don't match up well in trade talks with the Rockies, who are looking for catchers and power pitchers. The Orioles have no big-time catching prospects in the higher levels of their minors, and they covet their power pitchers for the same reason the Rockies want power pitchers -- it's important to have strikeout pitchers in hitters' parks such as Camden Yards and Coors Field. It'll be hard for the Orioles to land Weiss.

7. Catcher Joe Girardi

He hit just two homers in 1996, but he is widely respected, nonetheless, for his ability to catch and throw, and excellent fundamentals. Girardi is a great bunter, good at putting the ball into play, and he can run well for a catcher (remember his triple in the clinching game of the World Series?).

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