Orioles close Benitez deal Avoiding arbitration, club signs reliever for 1 year, $900,000

Move eliminates distraction

O's priority now shifts to Hammonds, Tarasco

January 20, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The Orioles eliminated what could have been a major distraction as they groom reliever Armando Benitez for the closer's role, agreeing to terms with the right-hander yesterday on a one-year contract worth $900,000 and avoiding salary arbitration.

The club submitted salary figures at noon yesterday for the two remaining players eligible for arbitration, outfielders Jeffrey Hammonds and Tony Tarasco, and expected to hear back from their representatives either last night or early today. Hearings would begin Feb. 2 if agreements aren't reached and could drag on as late as Feb. 21, the day after position players are due to report to spring training.

It was important to avoid the process with Benitez, who will have enough to contend with as he prepares for the opportunity to replace departed closer Randy Myers. Orioles officials didn't relish the idea of harping on Benitez's shortcomings in arbitration, perhaps damaging his confidence and hurting his concentration in spring training.

"We didn't think it was advantageous on either side," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "We felt like it would not be valuable for him to go through that and we didn't want to subject him. We just didn't see it being profitable."

"Kevin and I both have the same approach," said general manager Pat Gillick. "Really, for the most part, we're very reasonable people and want to try to work things out. We don't like the arbitration process but it's something we have to live with. It's there. But I think if cool heads prevail and you have intelligent people, you can get it done. It worked out well and we're happy."

Benitez's agent, Mike Powers, said, "Both sides agreed that nobody wanted to go through that process with him."

As for being able to reach agreements with Hammonds, who established career highs in several offensive categories, and Tarasco, Gillick said, "In the initial negotiations, we're probably not talking the same language. Hopefully, after the numbers are filed, that will get a better dialogue going for us. Not that our dialogue is confrontational. It's been very good. It's just that they're in a little different areas of salary than we're in."

Benitez, 25, was one of baseball's most dominant relievers last season, maintaining a lead in 43 of 44 games and striking out 106 in 73 1/3 innings. Spending his first full year in the majors, he went 4-5 with a 2.45 ERA, converting nine of 10 save opportunities and tying for the club lead with 71 appearances.

With a fastball that occasionally was clocked at 100 mph, the Dominican native held opponents to an American League-low .125 batting average (18-for-144) with runners on base. Opponents batted .146 (13-for-89) with runners in scoring position, and .191 overall (49-for-257), second-best among AL relievers behind Texas Rangers closer John Wetteland.

"He filled a very unique role in baseball," Powers said. "He wasn't just a setup guy, he was a setup guy who came into terrible situations. The typical setup guy will come in the eighth inning with nobody on base and clean up for an inning, then go to the closer. That wasn't Armando's role last year. If you really break down what he did last year, the situations he came into, his numbers were phenomenal."

Unfortunately for the Orioles, Benitez was much less than that in the American League Championship Series.

He lost twice, serving up a three-run homer to Cleveland's Marquis Grissom in the eighth inning of Game 2 that turned around the series, and a homer to Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning of Game 6 that broke a scoreless tie and sealed the Orioles' fate. He also allowed the winning hit to Sandy Alomar in Game 4 after coming in with the score tied.

Powers said Benitez, who has been working out at Camden Yards, is comfortable going into spring training as the favorite to win the closer's job.

"Armando understands the situation," he said. "From the perspective of the club, picking up [Norm] Charlton kind of sent the message out that, 'We believe you can do it, but if you can't hTC there's a backup.' The first shot will be his, and if he produces, he produces."

Benitez's statistics

The Orioles signed Armando Benitez to a one-year, $900,000 contract. A look at his Orioles career:

Yr. ... W-L .... IP ..... H ... SO .. SV .. ERA

'94 ... 0-0 .... 10 ..... 8 ... 14 ... 0 .. 0.90

'95 ... 1-5 .... 47 2/3 37 ... 56 ... 2 .. 5.66

'96 ... 1-0 .... 14 1/3 . 7 ... 20 ... 4 .. 3.77

'97 ... 4-5 .... 73 1/3 49 .. 106 ... 9 .. 2.45

Tot. .. 6-10 .. 145 1/3 .. 101 .. 196 .. 15 .. 3.53

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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