Momentum swinging against Palmeiro staying Others vying to play first, dislike for long deals key

Inside the Orioles

Inside the Orioles

August 30, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos says he wants to re-sign pending free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. And Palmeiro says he wants to end his career in Baltimore. Yet four weeks after the Orioles faxed an unflattering three-year, $21 million offer to Palmeiro's agent, Jim Bronner, circumstances appear to be conspiring against the All-Star's return.

The reasons for negative momentum are many, possibly irreparable: Deeming the Orioles' initial proposal ludicrous, Bronner has yet to make a counteroffer.

A previously hidden back injury to Chris Hoiles may necessitate the catcher permanently moving from behind the plate next season. Scheduled to make $3.5 million on the final installment of a painful five-year deal, Hoiles must have a role, presumably as first baseman or designated hitter.

Prospect Calvin Pickering is scheduled for arrival in Baltimore in two years, either as first baseman or DH. That is also the year many within the organization expect a move across the infield by Cal Ripken, who turns 40 that August.

The Orioles also wince at the thought of a $9 million, 39-year-old player, which Palmeiro would be at the end of the 2003 season if he gets the five-year contract he seeks.

Palmeiro met with Angelos for two hours last month and came away with a positive impression. Angelos has since maintained that the club will do whatever it can to keep Palmeiro, who has justified a five-year, $30 million deal signed before the '94 season with 180 home runs, 544 RBIs, a Gold Glove Award and only five missed games the past three seasons. His run is the most productive five-year stretch in Orioles history. Better than Frank Robinson, Ripken, Boog Powell or Eddie Murray.

"I guess they want to see what I'm going to do," Palmeiro says. "I guess they want to see if I'm afraid to test the market. I'm not afraid, believe me. Texas played the same game [in 1993] and I wound up here. I can do that again."

An issue of finances approaches a clash of egos. Palmeiro saw the club negotiate in earnest with center fielder Brady Anderson last season before signing him to a five-year, $31 million deal last December. Likewise, the Orioles signed No. 2 starting pitcher Scott Erickson to a five-year, $32 million deal this May.

"They set their own market," Palmeiro said. "I'm only asking to negotiate within that market."

Palmeiro says he enjoys this place and these fans. Yes, he pleads guilty to listening to talk radio -- a high crime in this market -- and detects support. He's also realistic enough to know that "it's good to have the fans behind you, but it really doesn't matter if the people who control things don't agree."

Warehouse types feel differently. The burn marks linger from Anderson's contract, which general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone argued against. The industry now frowns on five-year deals, and the Orioles seem close to falling in step with conventional wisdom. Subtle considerations also present in Anderson's negotiations affect the club's dealings with Palmeiro.

Anderson, the second-longest tenured Oriole behind Ripken, played the first season of his new contract at 34 and became un- tradeable given his 10 consecutive years in the major leagues and five years with the same team.

Palmeiro will play most of next season at 34. He also will accrue the same 5-and-10 status Anderson enjoys. With Mike Mussina expected to be awarded a contract extension this off-season, that would leave Angelos tethered to at least four contracts of at least $6 million a year through 2002. It also would mean a violation of the long-standing but unwritten rule that no player earn more than Ripken's $7.3 million average salary (including a buyout option for 2000).

While Palmeiro says he is willing to give the Orioles their home team "discount," he sees his market value on a different plane than the club. Palmeiro sees himself as the equal to Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn, who quickly rejected a four-year, $37 million proposal to stay in Fenway. With some justification, Angelos says there is no such thing as a $10 million-a-year player, though members of his front office are increasingly fascinated by the possible acquisition of pending free-agent catcher Mike Piazza or a trade for New York Mets catcher Todd Hundley.

There exists middle ground. The Orioles could play off Palmeiro's stated desire to stay by offering him a four-year, $34 million deal with an option attached for 2003. Deferred money -- an Angelos fingerprint on any major deal -- would be involved. A $2 million buyout, more than paid for by interest from deferred money, also would provide Palmeiro an average annual value of $9 million a season if exercised.

lTC Of course, this is only guesswork dependent on both parties accurately representing their true desires. Angelos says he wants Palmeiro to stay. Palmeiro says he wants to be here. So far, the Orioles have backed their stance with nothing more than words.

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