Volatile market puts heat on Wren, O's

November 17, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Jose Offerman signed for a higher average salary than Roberto Alomar earned last season. Alan Mills signed for nearly $2 million more than the Orioles thought he was worth. And the real spending has yet to begin.

Orioles general manager Frank Wren said yesterday that Mo Vaughn was too expensive for his taste, and that Bernie Williams and Kevin Brown were approaching that point, though he didn't know the specifics of their offers.

None of that is a surprise.

The real problem for the Orioles is that second-tier free agents like outfielder Brian Jordan and right-hander Todd Stottlemyre might also land contracts more lucrative than expected.

"The numbers have already gone further than I wanted to go on some players, there's no question," Wren said. "If that trend continues, I am concerned."

Well, that trend is going to continue, and Wren knows it. Mike Timlin was a gamble, especially for four years. But with the latest escalation in salaries, Timlin's $4 million average salary is starting to look like a bargain.

It's early, but Wren's quest to reshape the Orioles is proving more difficult than probably he even envisioned. He's trying to address at least a half-dozen needs in a volatile market, and he's doing it without an assistant GM.

Such is the price for the Orioles waiting until Oct. 23 to hire a new GM, but there's no use complaining about that now. The major questions are these: Can Wren even land Jordan and/or Stottlemyre? And how much would they help, anyway?

Even if the Orioles signed both free agents and kept first baseman Rafael Palmeiro -- a trifecta that they are unlikely to hit -- they would still need a catcher, a second baseman and another outfielder.

Todd Hundley could be the catcher, Delino DeShields could be the second baseman and B. J. Surhoff could be the outfielder, but that's another long-shot trifecta.

See, this is how it works in free agency. Other teams bid for the players you want. And sometimes, those other teams foil your best-laid plans.

Take Offerman. The Orioles wanted to sign him after Atlanta traded for Bret Boone. But Wren did not view Offerman as a second baseman who merited a four-year, $26 million contract. The Red Sox did.

Where does that leave the Orioles? Rookie Jerry Hairston is one option -- "he has opened some eyes in Arizona," Wren said. Free agents DeShields and Rey Sanchez are others.

DeShields, 29, was Montreal's No. 1 pick in 1987, when Wren was the Expos' assistant scouting director. He could lead off, but he had a modest .371 on-base percentage for the St. Louis Cardinals last season, and that was his highest in five years.

Wouldn't it be better to trade for Milwaukee's Fernando Vina? Probably, but Wren said he would prefer to sign free agents rather than create additional holes with trades.

That means no Vina and no Rondell White, a center fielder who is nearly five years younger than Jordan, 32, and could be an alternative for the Yankees if they lost Bernie Williams.

"I don't think we're in a position to make a big prospect deal," Wren said. "They've spent a number of years here in recent times trying to build up the prospect base. If we were to do something like that, we would suffer down the road."

That's a welcome perspective -- the Orioles need to promote minor-leaguers like Hairston and Calvin Pickering, not trade them. But again, what if the Orioles can't sign Jordan and Stottlemyre? What if they can't trade for Hundley?

They could wind up signing lesser free agents -- catcher Terry Steinbach, outfielder Steve Finley, pitcher Bob Tewksbury. But a team that draws 3.5 million fans to Camden Yards shouldn't stoop to that level, even while trying to exercise fiscal responsibility.

Jordan will visit Baltimore on Thursday -- "This is his hometown," Wren said. "That puts us solidly in the mix." Atlanta and both New York teams also have interest, but the Braves might focus their resources on Kevin Brown, the Yankees on Albert Belle, the Mets on Raul Mondesi in a rumored trade with Los Angeles.

Stottlemyre appears in even greater demand -- he already has received a four-year, $28 million offer from Detroit, and Anaheim reportedly might go to $32 million. Could Wren justify that much for a pitcher who is 123-110 lifetime and allowed 25 home runs in 221 2/3 innings last season?

"You may have to make some tough decisions," Wren said. "If you do a lot more than you want to do [financially], it's a decision that not only affects you this year; it can affect you the next three to five years."

The Orioles know -- they mistakenly went to five years with Chris Hoiles and Brady Anderson. But in their current depleted state, they might face no choice but to go beyond their desired terms again.

They don't want to make trades, but they need to acquire a half-dozen quality players. They don't want to overpay free agents, but they're competing in a market that leaves them little option.

It's not a baseball team; it's a Rubik's Cube.

Good luck, Frank Wren.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

jTC

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