O's plans center on Williams Club eyes Stottlemyre, re-signing of Palmeiro

November 06, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles officially embark upon a clubhouse renovation today, when clubs may begin exchanging offers with free agents. Few if any franchises will be more closely scrutinized.

Coming off a disastrous fourth-place finish that made a $77 million payroll resemble folly, the Orioles are both a driving force within the marketplace and a work in progress for first-year general manager Frank Wren.

Though they have been linked to virtually every prominent free agent, from Kevin Brown to Mo Vaughn to Bernie Williams, the Orioles have quietly crafted a blueprint that focuses on Williams -- the American League batting champion and an elegant center fielder with the New York Yankees -- rather than Vaughn as their most expensive cornerstone.

Wren remained vague about his plans earlier this week. However, sources familiar with the club's thinking suggest that the Orioles will aggressively pursue Williams, right-handed starting pitcher Todd Stottlemyre and second basemen Bret Boone or Jose Offerman, and attempt to re-sign first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. Wren has contingencies for every position.

He already has notified Williams' agent, Scott Boras, of the club's interest. Offers may be submitted as early as today.

Signing Williams likely would require the organization committing its first eight-figure annual salary -- a barrier that kept majority owner Peter Angelos from pursuing Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez or Williams in trades last year -- as well as its first six- or seven-year contract.

Should the Orioles fail to land Williams, who's likely to be pursued by Boston and Arizona among other teams, they will make a run at outfielder Brian Jordan. Able to supply a right-handed bat to a lineup vulnerable against left-handed pitching, Jordan also can play center field, which would allow the club to move Brady Anderson to left field.

Opinions are split regarding Boone and Offerman. Boone is considered the better fielder, but Offerman is coming off a career offensive season. Retaining All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar does not appear to be an option.

While the Orioles will not give in to Palmeiro's demand for a five-year deal worth about $10 million per season, it's unlikely Cany other team will, either. A shorter contract worth $8.5 million- $9 million per season will represent a savings compared to a potential contract with Vaughn.

The Orioles' eight free agents earned a combined $25 million last season, or roughly twice Williams' annual salary in his next contract.

The additions of Williams and Stottlemyre and the retention of Palmeiro likely would require an annual outlay of at least $25 million to the trio. The figure is not out of line with organizational projections for a 10 percent hike in payroll next season. Such a bump would leave the Orioles with a payroll of about $76 million, excluding benefits and incentives.

The Orioles are resigned to the departure of Alomar, who reportedly has bought a home in Cleveland in anticipation of signing with the Indians. Alomar has long desired to play alongside his brother, Sandy, the Indians' catcher, and appeared to burn any bridges with the Orioles during a profane clubhouse confrontation with manager Ray Miller in August.

Alomar's plans could be complicated, however, by the Indians' possible pursuit of free-agent third baseman Robin Ventura. The Indians then could move Travis Fryman to second base to make room for Ventura.

Considered one of the game's most gifted players, Alomar managed to inflict serious damage to his market value by moping through much of the 1998 season's second half. What scouts -- and many within the Orioles' clubhouse -- perceived as indifferent play will give pause to any organization contemplating a six-year offer for the gifted switch-hitter.

Should the Indians look elsewhere for a second baseman, Alomar likely will return to the National League and a style of play more befitting his diverse talents.

Alomar has believed himself a target of AL umpires ever since his infamous spitting incident involving John Hirschbeck in September 1996. Fans heaped abuse upon him in virtually every city.

Even more discouraging, Alomar believed he lost at least one strike per at-bat because of lingering ill will from the umpires. His answer was to become a chronic first-ball hitter, a tendency that made him a poor fit as a leadoff candidate.

The Atlanta Braves, who possess the money and the need for Alomar, are one team that could provide an NL sanctuary.

Less certain is whether the Orioles will retain outfielders B. J. Surhoff and Eric Davis, both of whom are seeking annual salaries of $4 million or more.

Wren classified a decision concerning Davis as "a tough call" earlier this week. The Orioles are already loaded with designated hitter-types (Harold Baines and Chris Hoiles). The notion of adding another $4 million contract for platoon duty is not appealing. Thus, Davis' future in Baltimore appears to be a hostage of the Orioles' quest for Williams.

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