Free-agent closer Randy Myers abruptly walked away from the Orioles yesterday morning to accept a guaranteed three-year, $18 million offer from the Toronto Blue Jays, making Myers the game's first $6 million relief pitcher. Myers left behind the finest season ever by a reliever along with allegations that ongoing "turmoil" within the clubhouse and front office contributed to his surprise decision.
Team officials were stunned by the turnabout. Last week the club believed Myers' return was more likely than that of free-agent center fielder Brady Anderson. Now the Orioles are left to address a gaping void that Myers, 35, filled with a franchise-record 45 saves, a career-best 1.51 ERA and a fourth-place finish in AL MVP balloting.
The defection of Myers presents another serious challenge to a club that considered its bullpen its most unyielding strength. General manager Pat Gillick, assistant GM Kevin Malone and manager Ray Miller will now consider whether to address the void through free agency, trade or the promotion of mercurial Armando Benitez and left-hander Arthur Rhodes in a closer-by-committee role.
"We believed [Myers leaving] was a possibility, but we thought it was a limited risk because he told us all along he was coming back," said Malone, whose Orioles offered Myers a two-year deal for over $10 million. "He told Ray Miller he would give us a last shot, but none of those things seemed to happen."
Instead, Myers' agent, David Fishof, phoned Gillick yesterday morning with Toronto's offer. Within two hours, Myers had committed to the Blue Jays. "It was a situation where Toronto showed interest and decided to move faster. I think the Orioles knew the situation," Fishof said via conference call from Barbados.
"I was definitely interested in staying in Baltimore. I gave them first crack," Myers said. "But they offered only two years. If they had given me a three-year contract for money comparable to Toronto, I would have signed with them. I know Ray Miller wanted me back, but I don't know if upper management wanted me back."
The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays' signing of free-agent closer Roberto Hernandez to a four-year, $22.5 million contract re-heated the marketplace. But increasingly concerned over a graying roster, the Orioles thought it unwise to commit three years to a pitcher who would be 38 at the end of his contract.
"I can tell you we're not in a panic situation," Malone said. "Randy had a career year last year, but we think we'll be fine."
The Orioles might soon inquire about free-agent closer Rod Beck, according to a club source, but are more likely to plumb for a trade.
The Cleveland Indians are prepared to move ex-Oriole Jose Mesa and general manager John Hart has approached Gillick about a deal for second baseman Roberto Alomar. Hart's initial offer, which did not include Mesa, was rejected earlier this month but may now take on new life. Alomar is entering the final year of a three-year contract and may be more comfortable landing in Cleveland alongside brother Sandy.
"One thing I won't do: I won't name a closer," said Miller, reached at his Ohio home last night. "I've seen people do that in the past and then change if a guy doesn't do well. I don't mean if I made Armando the closer he wouldn't do well. But a closer is someone who has closed. Until someone goes out and saves 35-40 games do you bring a guy to spring training and say he's your closer. I'll open the season with an open mind."
Unless they land a proven closer, the Orioles may well start next season with 12 pitchers, again leaving the club with a short bench.
"If I have to go by committee then I'll go by committee," said Miller. "We won 98 games last year. Randy was involved in 45 of them. He didn't pitch the seventh or eighth innings in any of them."
However, Myers converted 45 of 46 save chances last season -- the second highest percentage in big-league history. His departure comes as Benitez's meltdown during the American League Championship Series remains a painfully fresh memory. Myers has 319 saves, sixth all-time. Benitez and Rhodes have a combined 17.
Not only did Myers leave, but he also provided a laundry list of reasons besides money: a perceived snub by owner Peter Angelos for failing to intercede in his negotiations; the failure to guarantee a third year; the recent resignation of manager Davey Johnson; inconsistent travel arrangements; and what he construed as underhanded distribution of playoff tickets to players.
Myers contrasted his talks with those of Anderson, who has spoken face-to-face with Angelos while Myers has negotiated through his agent with Gillick.