O's see relief in Bones, Hernandez But search for starter is less satisfying

December 14, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Orioles will leave the winter meetings much closer to cementing their piecemeal bullpen, but may have to exercise patience in their quest for a quality starting pitcher. Though an announcement will wait at least until general manager Frank Wren returns to Baltimore tomorrow, the Orioles have agreed in principle with free-agent relievers Ricky Bones and Xavier Hernandez.

Their refocused search for a starting pitcher includes Los Angeles Dodgers Ismael Valdes and Dave Mlicki, Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Brian Anderson, Pittsburgh Pirates right-handers Francisco Cordova and Jon Lieber and free-agent

stopgaps Orel Hershiser and Bob Tewksbury.

An announcement on either reliever must wait for today's Rule 5 draft. The Orioles froze their 40-man roster at 39 before today's selection, which exposes any unprotected player with three or more years of professional experience.

The club still must firm details of each contract but Bones will sign a one-year deal worth at least $800,000, according to a source familiar with the talks.

Bones, 29, was 2-2 with a 3.04 ERA in 32 relief appearances last season with the Kansas City Royals. The showing represented vast improvement over two previous seasons spent with three teams, shuttling back and forth between starting and relief. He is projected for long relief while Hernandez, 33, who was 6-6 with a 3.57 ERA for Texas, is slotted as a right-handed setup man for closer Mike Timlin. Barring a trade of Arthur Rhodes, Wren's remaining "upgrade" may have him pursue ex-Oriole Jim Poole as a replacement for Doug Johns in left-handed long relief.

After finishing a distant third for free agent Kevin Brown, the Orioles have readjusted their sights but are so far stymied by demands for major league-ready talent.

A deal for Houston Astros pitcher Mike Hampton crumbled last night when Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker insisted that Sidney Ponson be included in the deal. Hampton, 26, is 36-27 the last three seasons with a career 3.68 ERA, but becomes eligible for free agency after next season. Hampton neatly fit the Orioles' desire for a No. 3 starter; however, they apparently are unwilling to budge on Ponson, who has brought persistent interest all week.

Wren was scheduled to meet last night with the Dodgers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and a third club. The Dodgers, having acquired Brown for seven years and $105 million on Saturday, suddenly find themselves loaded with starting pitching -- and a staggering payroll. Valdes is 52-40 during a five-year career, including 11-10 last season. Mlicki, who stirred the Orioles' interest last summer, finished 8-7 with a 4.57 ERA while giving the Dodgers and New York Mets 181 1/3 innings in 30 starts.

"We'll do something to fill out our rotation," Wren said before his nocturnal bargaining sessions. However, a highly competitive arena for starting pitchers has caused Wren to confront the prospect of returning to the free agent market for help.

"We've talked about a couple things that would be better than a fifth starter. I'm not sure that we're going to be able to come up with what they're asking for. We've wanted to improve our rotation. But if we don't improve the rotation we're still pretty good. We had higher aspirations, but our rotation's still pretty good. If you look around baseball there are not many clubs significantly better than us."

One potential option, Oakland 16-game winner Kenny Rogers, reached a dead end when the Orioles discovered that Rogers' contract includes a limited no-trade clause eliminating them.

Wren also failed to land San Diego Padres starter Joey Hamilton, who instead went to the Toronto Blue Jays in return for veteran arm Woody Williams and prospects. Wren admitted he could not match the Blue Jays player for player.

The Orioles find themselves with virtually no major-league depth, making it virtually impossible to meet the demands of clubs wanting instant return on a starting pitcher. Protective of prospects such as Jerry Hairston, Darnell McDonald and Chris Fussell, they prefer to offer right fielder Willie Greene; third base prospect Willis Otanez, who is out of options; and outfielder Danny Clyburn.

Perspective has gradually changed regarding the team's rotation. Wren and manager Ray Miller have consistently emphasized the need for an additional pitcher, labeling it their top off-season priority.

However, given the rotation's return to health, they believe the core of a group that finished last season 56-64 with a 4.89 ERA matches up well with the rest of the league.

"We'd love to better our starting pitching, but I don't know if that's realistic," Wren said. "There are a couple possibilities, but I don't want to be overly optimistic. I think our starting pitching is better than most."

Wren reported that Scott Kamieniecki has begun throwing after undergoing September surgery to repair a disk in his neck. While unable to project his return to the rotation, the club believes Kamieniecki could contend for at least a bullpen role by early next season.

Agent Ron Shapiro and Wren plan to speak today regarding catcher Lenny Webster, who has requested the club trade him after acquiring Gold Glover Charles Johnson as its unchallenged starter. The Orioles are willing to entertain offers, but remain reluctant to part with a dependable backup given their lack of alternatives.

"We're not going to trade a player unless it's in our best interest to do so," Wren said. "We think Lenny fits well into a backup role."

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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