The Orioles completed a productive, whirlwind week of reconstruction yesterday by announcing the signing of free-agent second baseman Delino DeShields and the retention of outfielder B. J. Surhoff.
Placed atop Tuesday's $65 million signing of free-agent outfielder Albert Belle and a trade for Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson, the Orioles leave the week in much better shape than they entered it. What emerges is a predominantly left-handed-hitting team with a clearly defined defensive spine. What remains is finding a power-hitting first baseman, another starting pitcher and right-handed bullpen help.
A career National League player, DeShields accepted a three-year, $12.5 million offer while Surhoff, long one of the American League's most undervalued players, agreed to a three-year, $14 million deal with a vesting option for 2002 that could potentially stretch its value to $17.5 million.
Surhoff also got assurance he would remain in left field, with Belle shifting to right.
"When you look at our ballclub now, I think it's starting to take shape," said general manager Frank Wren, who has signed four free agents guaranteed at least $107.5 million the next five years. "I feel great about what we've done behind the plate with Charles Johnson. We've added a big-time offensive guy in Albert Belle. We've added a guy who's done everything for this franchise the last three years in B. J. We've added Mike Timlin to help us close. We've slowly but surely put the pieces together."
DeShields, 29, becomes the successor to perennial All-Star Roberto Alomar, who signed last week with the Cleveland Indians, and is virtually certain to assume the leadoff role occupied by Brady Anderson for most of the last six seasons. Once a mad hacker who struck out 151 times in 1991, DeShields has remade himself into a disciplined all-fields hitter.
DeShields batted .290 in 117 games last season. The NL leader in triples in 1997, DeShields last year stole 26 of 36 attempts after compiling a .371 on-base percentage, second-highest of his nine-year career.
Long criticized for poor contact hitting, DeShields lowered his strikeouts from 124 in 1996 to 72 in 1997 in virtually the same number of at-bats. He grounded into only 11 double plays in 992 at-bats covering the last two seasons.
"Sometimes you have guys who are as good as they can be in the beginning," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "With other guys, it takes four or five years to become a complete package. DeShields and Johnson have their best ahead of them."
Competition for DeShields supposedly came down to the Orioles and Cardinals, who briefly considered moving DeShields to the outfield because of limited range at second base. However, sources familiar with negotiations said the Cardinals never tendered an offer approaching the Orioles' package.
"Team DeShields is very, very happy about this deal," said DeShields' agent, Adam Katz.
The pact includes a $500,000 signing bonus and a base salary of $3,666,667 next season, $4,166,667 in 2000 and $4,166,667 in 2001.
For Surhoff, returning to the Orioles almost seemed inevitable, especially when his options narrowed within the last several days. The cash-strapped Pittsburgh Pirates had offered a four-year, $17 million deal, but their future has become clouded by political opposition to a proposed new stadium. The New York Mets had offered Surhoff a three-year, $13.5 million deal, but withdrew after signing third baseman Robin Ventura.
Surhoff also had concerns about a foundering off-season and the loss of veteran free agents Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Eric Davis and Alan Mills.
A two-hour meeting with Wren on Wednesday allayed some of his concerns. A subsequent vow from Miller that he would remain in left field also helped.
"I'd prefer to play left; that's my preference," said Surhoff, among the game's most underrated defensive outfielders.
Surhoff's contract includes a limited no-trade clause and $2.25 million deferred, down from the club's initial insistence of $3 million.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of the agreement was Surhoff's willingness to gamble $2.5 million on himself. The Orioles had offered him a guaranteed four-year deal worth $16.5 million. Under the accepted deal, Surhoff is guaranteed $14 million over three seasons through a $4 million signing bonus and salaries of $2.5 million next season, $3 million in 2000 and $3.5 million in 2001 along with a $1 million buyout. If he plays 120 games or receives 327 plate appearances in 2001, his contract for 2002 automatically vests at $4.5 million.
"The reason I took the vesting option is because I feel very comfortable about my physical condition and my performance," said Surhoff, 34, who played in every game last season. "I have no problem taking some of the risks along with the club."