O's hand Timlin the ball Sinkerballer given 4 years, $16 million and closer role

He emerged in Seattle

Palmeiro offer raised

Benitez going to Mets?

November 13, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles under third-week general manager Frank Wren began what is expected to be a far-reaching shake-up of their clubhouse yesterday by signing free-agent reliever Mike Timlin to a four-year, $16 million contract and immediately anointing him as their closer.

"When I first came on board it became very apparent that one of our primary needs was to go out and get a closer," Wren said during a conference call last night. "We identified Mike as someone we wanted to go after."

Securing Timlin will likely lead to further moves, including a trade involving deposed closer Armando Benitez, who has attracted interest from the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, among others. One club official estimated there is an even chance Benitez could be traded by next week.

Timlin, who turns 33 in March, is not as potentially dominant as Benitez, but carries exceptional control that has improved each of the past four seasons. Timlin struck out 60 against 16 walks in 79 1/3 innings last season, while surrendering five home runs. His hard sinker is a comfortable fit for hitter-friendly Camden Yards, a place that has often tormented the powerful but fly ball-prone Benitez.

"I look at it as being a sinkerball pitcher going to a grass field. The only home fields I've known are AstroTurf," said Timlin, whose eight-year major-league career has been spent in domes with the Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays.

"I seem to give up a ton of seeing-eye ground balls. Obviously, the fences are cozier there than a lot of places. That's a challenge to keep the ball down."

Timlin has converted 60 of 80 save chances the past three seasons, including 19 of 24 last year. Originally a setup man for Duane Ward and Tom Henke in Toronto, he stepped forward to save 31 games as the Blue Jays' closer in 1996. Dealt to Seattle in 1997, Timlin struggled for consistency. Last season, he struggled for opportunity, as the Mariners rivaled the Orioles as the majors' biggest underachievers.

Timlin said he originally believed he would re-sign with the pitching-thin Mariners. However, the Mariners instead reduced their initial offer before signing free agent Jose Mesa yesterday. Though the Yankees also were offering four years, they projected Timlin as nothing more than a "co-closer" to incumbent Mariano Rivera. An unmatched combination of security and opportunity landed him for the Orioles.

"Coming from the visitors' side, it's never a great place to play," Timlin said. "The crowd is on top of you. It seems like you're at a disadvantage all the time. On the home side, I'll take that advantage."

Coming off a two-year, $6 million contract, Timlin became the first reliever ever to sign a four-year contract with the Orioles. A shortage of closers within this year's free-agent market along with competition by the Yankees forced majority owner Peter Angelos to approve an additional year earlier this week.

"When you're talking about your closer, it doesn't concern me as much," Wren said about the fourth year. "Mike had another four-year offer on the table. If we were going to get him, we had to do it as well."

Timlin made $3,025,000 in 1998. With the Orioles, he gets a $1 million signing bonus, a $2 million salary in 1999, $4 million each in 2000 and 2001 and $5 million in 2002.

Wren has begun entertaining offers for Benitez and would like to land a catcher in return. New York Mets catcher Todd Hundley is an obvious target.

Asked about Benitez's future with the club, Wren gave away little. However, Benitez's agent, Mike Powell, is expected to force the issue soon with Angelos. Benitez already has made clear he wishes to be traded if he is not the Orioles closer.

"It remains to be seen," Wren said. "There are a lot of things we have going on. I can't answer that question today. This is the first of what we hope will be several acquisitions. There are a lot of things that could happen on this club. He's got a quality arm. He's got good stuff. We'll see where he goes."

The Mets also are interested in Arthur Rhodes, but the Orioles appear unwilling to part with their left-handed reliever.

The Orioles have not given up on re-signing first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. The club apparently improved its previous three-year, $21 million bid yesterday, though Palmeiro had not had time to digest it last night.

Wren continues to pursue another starting pitcher and appears to be focusing on Todd Stottlemyre. Already, the Orioles have established themselves as pacesetters for outfielder Brian Jordan with a four-year offer approaching $30 million.

Timlin, who has twice undergone surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, is the latest beneficiary of a spiraling free-agent market. At the All-Star break, he was one of several relievers in manager Lou Piniella's doghouse. Then, Timlin had converted one of five chances and was being dangled for trade. However, Timlin rescued his season -- and his marketability -- by converting 18 of 19 save chances while compiling a 2.25 ERA after the break.

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