O's take chance on Charlton Minor-league contract includes spring invite

December 16, 1997|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

In need of another reliever to aid a reconfigured bullpen, the Orioles signed Norm Charlton to a minor-league contract yesterday and invited him to spring training. The move gives manager Ray Miller the extra left-hander he desired and demonstrates the club's belief that the veteran's struggles with the Seattle Mariners last season can be averted.

Charlton is guaranteed $350,000, a figure that would increase to $650,000 if he's added to the major-league roster. His total salary for next season would escalate to $2.1 million if every bonus is met, including $750,000 if he appears in at least 60 games and another $500,000 if he finishes 45.

For now, the Orioles envision him mostly in a setup role, though he also brings experience as a closer to a club scrambling to replace Randy Myers, who recently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Orioles' only serious competition for Charlton came from the St. Louis Cardinals, leaving the pitcher's final decision a tossup because of his fondness for both Miller and Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. "I told my agent it doesn't matter to me," he said.

Charlton, who turns 35 next month, joins an organization where youth isn't king. In the past four days alone, the Orioles signed starter Doug Drabek, 35, outfielder/first baseman Joe Carter, 37, and Charlton, who lost his closer's job in Seattle last season and ran up a 7.27 ERA over a career-high 71 relief appearances.

They also have re-signed infielder Jeff Reboulet, 33, starter Scott Kamieniecki, 33, and center fielder Brady Anderson, who will be 34 next month, and offered arbitration to designated hitter Harold Baines, 38.

"If we added anyone to this club, we wanted to add veteran, gamer kind of guys," Miller said. "When we lost Randy, obviously you're not going to go out and replace somebody who saved 45 out of 46 games, or whatever it was. But I wanted one more veteran guy in the bullpen.

"And Norm's a very versatile guy. He can be a middle guy, he can be a setup guy and he can close if he has to."

Charlton seemed to forget how to get hitters out last season, losing eight games and blowing 11 of 25 save opportunities. Miller said Charlton's woes stemmed from excessive use.

"He was probably overworked," said Miller, who watched Charlton throw 2 1/3 scoreless innings against the Orioles in the AL Division Series. "The scenario they had in Seattle, nobody was doing good and he was probably up 250 times. That's also one of the toughest ballparks to pitch in because it's so small and it's artificial turf. I think being part of an excellent bullpen, as opposed to having to be the bullpen itself, will bring a lot out of him."

Charlton, whose ties with the Mariners were severed after they declined to exercise an option in his contract, straddled the fence when questioned about how he was used.

"I was up a lot throwing on the side and I was in 71 games," he said. "Do I think I was overworked and that affected me? Yes to an extent and no to another extent. I'm not going to blame a lackluster season on [Seattle manager] Lou Piniella. I think if I wasn't worked as much as I was, I would have pitched a little better, but I don't think I was overworked."

Unless the Orioles sign a closer, and free agent Rod Beck's asking price of around $6 million a year is too rich for their taste, Armando Benitez and left-hander Arthur Rhodes could inherit the job, with Charlton waiting in the wings. Miller won't hang that label on anyone yet, preferring to keep an open mind and letting the situation evolve. Whatever, he likes the look of his bullpen.

"Hopefully now we can have four righties and three lefties," Miller said. "Jesse Orosco's basically a three- or four-hitter guy. If you only have one other lefty, you can't use him until late."

Charlton, who started 37 games for the Reds over three seasons, voiced his preference to close but added, "I don't care where I pitch. I don't care if I'm the first guy in or the last, as long as we win and I contributed. Any reliever would be lying if he said he didn't want the ball at the end, but I'll fully understand if someone is doing better."

A first-round draft choice of the Montreal Expos in 1984, Charlton broke into the majors four years later with the Cincinnati Reds and was part of the flamboyant "Nasty Boys" bullpen trio that included Myers and helped the Reds win the 1990 World Series. They defeated Pittsburgh, where Miller was pitching coach, in the National League playoffs.

Charlton made two stops in Seattle, leading the Mariners in saves with 18 in 1993 despite missing almost the entire second half with a torn ligament in his left elbow that required Tommy John surgery. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, sat out the 1994 season, then was released in July of the following year after making 25 appearances and going 2-5 with no saves and a 7.36 ERA. The Mariners signed Charlton four days later, and he converted 14 of 15 save opportunities while helping Seattle to its first postseason berth.

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