O's brass decides to stay course Free agents to remain, starting pitcher sought for now, down road

July 22, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Faced with making a bull rush at this year's wild-card berth or reshaping the clubhouse toward next season, the Orioles' leadership yesterday opted for both.

During a two-hour meeting at the office of majority owner Peter Angelos, a ready consensus emerged within organization leadership to pursue a trade for an established starting pitcher in the days leading up to the July 31 waiver deadline. The pursuit could take the Orioles to the Montreal Expos for left-hander Carlos Perez or to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks for Willie Blair.

Club sources added that contract considerations now make Seattle's Randy Johnson an unlikely trade target. The Mariners also have grown increasingly reluctant to part with the pending free agent.

Attended by Angelos, chief operating officer Joe Foss, general manager Pat Gillick, assistant GM Kevin Malone and manager Ray Miller, the meeting galvanized sentiment created by a 10-1 run since the All-Star break that had taken six games out of Boston's wild-card lead. For now, all concerned say pending free agents, including first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, second baseman Roberto Alomar, reliever Jesse Orosco and outfielders Joe Carter and Eric Davis, will remain.

"We're the ones who created the mess. Let us try to clean it up," said Orosco.

Added pitcher Mike Mussina: "The last two weeks were an important time. If we play .500 ball the last two weeks I think the chances are pretty good something happens. If we play this way the next seven or eight days, I wouldn't be surprised if we acquire somebody."

Reluctant to part with a premium prospect -- Double-A third baseman Ryan Minor has been classified as untouchable -- the stance is flexible enough to make an exception for Perez (7-10, 3.77 ERA). A deal for Blair may be less costly in terms of players given his three-year, $11.5 million contract. Gillick pursued Blair last winter, but conceded when the Diamondbacks escalated the market. Blair, 16-8 last season with the Detroit Tigers, has washed out with the expansioneers (4-13, 5.11).

"We like the direction the team has taken," said Malone. "If we continue on this path, we feel we can make a run."

The Orioles insist they will abstain from the "rent-an-arm" philosophy of obtaining a pending free agent such as Johnson or St. Louis' Todd Stottlemyre. Any deal, according to Gillick and XTC Malone, would be for a player either already signed to a multi-year deal -- such as Blair -- or an arbitration-eligible pitcher such as Perez. "We're looking to make ourselves not only better for this year, but for down the road," said Malone.

Angelos endorsed the plan, as he considers the cost for Johnson preposterous," a club source said.

Not only would the Orioles have to sacrifice significant prospects, but they also would have to discuss a five-year, $50 million contract to have any chance of retaining him.

Marketing and public relations also play a role in the decision. After rationalizing a sweeping increase in ticket prices with a record $69 million payroll last winter, the club fears a potential backlash of a disenchanted fan base.

Offers for Alomar and Palmeiro have been disappointing. Rather than accept prospects of questionable grade, the Orioles feel it better not to force a deal. The deadline may soon spike bidding.

"The feeling is to play this thing out and see how it works," said a club official familiar with the meeting. "If other teams are more in contention and they want to make a very strong proposal, we'll listen."

"It's a mischaracterization that it's a simple process to restructure," said Foss. "The underlying assumption is that, by dumping superstars, you are getting something in return. If you don't sign a free agent, you're getting a first-round draft choice. You're not getting nothing in return."

Gillick, a grandmaster of deadline deals, does not believe a trade a necessity. Much of the Orioles' optimism is tied to the return of pitchers Jimmy Key, Scott Kamieniecki and Arthur Rhodes from the disabled list. Designated hitter Harold Baines also is side-lined.

"If we get our own guys back healthy, that's going to make a big difference," Gillick said. "Ray has been at least an arm short the whole season. You can add from within just as well."

The verdict played especially well within the clubhouse and Miller's office. Cal Ripken and Mussina were among those who stepped forward to lobby against taking apart the game's most veteran roster. Ripken has advocated the team extend the contracts of Alomar and Palmeiro, which would eliminate his longstanding rank as the team's highest-paid position player.

"You look around this room, you know what you've got. It's had a lot of success. You know it's very talented," Ripken said after last night's win. "You hate to give up that kind of talent. It creates a concern. And if you're one of those guys who might be moving I imagine it would be very distracting. The uncertainty coming to an end creates a big sense of relief to me and I'm sure for others as well."

Only "minimal discussion" addressed what to do with the team's 11 pending free agents beyond this season. However, Angelos is believed to be close to making an exploratory call to Palmeiro's agent, Jim Bronner.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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