Keeping a level paying field won't be easy after this year 13 looming free agents to make O's set priorities

March 01, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Two weeks into a deafeningly silent spring, the Orioles have no compelling on-field questions to address short of whether Armando Benitez can shoulder ninth-inning pressure and Roberto Alomar can shoulder a right-handed swing.

Suspense is being rationed. Manager Ray Miller has resorted to detailing situational hitting, rundown plays and base-running philosophy for entertainment value. Life is good.

The season's most pressing matter comes away from the field, its full ramifications still a year away. Where will Roberto Alomar, Scott Erickson, Rafael Palmeiro, B. J. Surhoff and nine others play and what will it cost?

The issue represents a challenge to the Orioles' way of handling payroll. With a season-opening payroll of $68.7 million, the Orioles are baseball's second-most expensive team as well as its oldest. Both elements make it virtually certain the face of this team will change profoundly after the 1998 season.

"We can't sign them all. That's not possible," general manager Pat Gillick says.

Thirteen players representing more than half the team's payroll become eligible for free agency after the season, affording the club unprecedented flexibility but also necessitating a clear direction.

Vice chairman of business and finance Joe Foss assures that "fans won't see us dismantling," but admits some tenets of the club's financial hierarchy may be re-examined.

Foss says: "I'm hard-pressed to see a pitcher on our staff paid more than Mike Mussina," but stops short of making such a declaration about Cal Ripken. Others within the organization, including majority owner Peter Angelos, second the opinion.

"Right now, our belief and our philosophy is to pay the players based on what they've earned and keep people in line with one another," assistant general manager Kevin Malone says. "It would be very difficult to go out and sign someone for $2 million or $3 million or $4 million more than what everybody else is making. As long as we stay within our current range, I don't think we have a problem.

"It's when we leapfrog that we have trouble. But it's going to happen. It's just a matter of when."

That moment is fast approaching. Alomar and Palmeiro will command no less than $8 million a season. Mussina last spring agreed to a three-year, $20.55 million contract extension that has become obsolete before he throws the first pitch under its terms.

Representatives for Erickson have said they will not be fettered by Mussina's deal. Meanwhile, club officials privately say that the contract may be "adjusted" after this season in order to bring in free-agent pitchers.

A former Montreal Expos general manager, Malone said prioritizing negotiations is more difficult in a clubhouse rife with star-quality veterans.

"There are so many marquee players, the way to differentiate between those guys is not as clear as it was in Montreal," he says. "It's hard to distinguish one guy from another. Palmeiro can say he has home runs. Alomar can say he has the average. Brady [Anderson] can say he hit 50 home runs in a season. Cal can say he's played every day his whole life. There are future Hall of Famers here and there are All-Stars. It's hard to distinguish."

Palmeiro last month jangled nerves within the front office when he tied his market value to that of Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn. A former MVP, Vaughn is seeking a five-year extension worth more than $10 million per season. By saying he will not "do a Brady" and accept less than market value, Palmeiro threatens a system that holds Ripken's $6.3 million salary as the top average for a position player.

Reprimanded for his brashness, Palmeiro has since withheld comment. The Orioles, meanwhile, have held preliminary discussions with his agent, Jim Bronner. Similar overtures will soon be made to Alomar's agent, Jaime Torres.

"There's a need for creativity," Foss says. "Because of our flexibility, I don't think you concede anything at this point."

While Alomar, Erickson, Palmeiro and Surhoff represent pri- mary concerns, veterans such as Eric Davis, Harold Baines, Joe Carter and Jimmy Key merit a wait-and-see approach. All are 35 or older and together make $10.45 million.

Gillick and Malone have worked effectively to maintain a rational salary structure within the clubhouse.

The Feb. 17 signing of outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds to a three-year, $7 million contract permitted the Orioles to sidestep a nasty arbitration hearing and allowed them to keep a projected reserve outfielder's salary from eclipsing a starter, Surhoff.

Hammonds will earn $1.25 million this year, including a $250,000 signing bonus. Surhoff has a $1.3 million salary but should push past Hammonds because of incentives.

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