The Orioles yesterday began their off-season roster shuffling just as they had done last November, signing right-handed, free-agent reliever Mike Trombley to a three-year, $7.75 million deal intended to add flexibility, durability and perhaps another ninth-inning arm to the team's most depressed area.
Trombley appeared in 75 games last season, going 2-8 with 24 saves and a 4.33 ERA for the Minnesota Twins. But rather than being imported as a candidate for closer, he was introduced by the club as part of a much-needed bridge to the ninth inning.
The move was the first notable player acquisition since majority owner Peter Angelos fired general manager Frank Wren on Oct. 6 and replaced him with a five-man management committee that includes director of player personnel Syd Thrift.
Wren's first move as general manager had been to sign closer Mike Timlin to a four-year, $16 million contract last Nov. 13. Timlin proved inconsistent in the role and temporarily relinquished it to Arthur Rhodes and rookie Gabe Molina. Timlin eventually recaptured the job, but ended the season with nine blown saves among 36 opportunities.
The club spoke with one voice about the need to overhaul a bullpen that proved to be last season's most glaring weakness. Trombley represents a versatile piece of the intended solution.
"I'm probably looking at it as a setup situation," Trombley said during a hastily arranged morning news conference. "Mike Timlin had a heck of a second half. I'm here to set up. Whatever way we can win. I've pitched in the first inning or the fourth inning in Minnesota. I'll do what they say."
Said Thrift: "There's a sense you have when somebody really wants to be here. I had that sense after our contact. This is the kind of guy you want here. He said it today, and I felt it from the very beginning."
Trombley's fresh outlook represents a departure from a veteran group that struggled early last season behind a slow-starting rotation, then chafed under vague roles and what it construed as excessive demands from its manager. The Orioles' bullpen ended the season having blown 25 of 58 save opportunities, the second-worst percentage in the majors.
Timlin finished 3-9 with a 3.57 ERA and 27 saves. He rebounded in the second half to compile a 1.40 ERA and convert 18 of 19 save chances. He was also the American League's September leader in relief points.
Exhibiting a single-minded negotiating tack, the Orioles quickly and aggressively pursued Trombley. Thrift contacted the player's agents, Gregory Torborg and Drew Seccafico, within an hour of the pitcher's officially filing for free agency.
Angelos tendered the club's first offer Saturday. Trombley underwent a physical on Monday, and the two parties reached agreement on a contract at about 11: 30 Tuesday night.
"I wanted to be an Oriole. I really did," said Trombley, a Duke alumnus who cited his college ties and Florida residence as contributing to a geographical tug.
"We always talk about how you play for the money. It's not about the money. The situation was right. The guys on the team, the organization, the area, everything."
The Twins represented the Orioles' most serious competition for Trombley, but a combination of geography, personalities, fan base and finances persuaded him to embrace the Orioles' offer.
Trombley received a $1 million signing bonus and will be paid a base salary of $2.5 million for next season and $2 million for 2001 and 2002. The team has an option for $3 million for the 2003 season or may exercise a $250,000 buyout.
"It's very nice to feel wanted. Syd called right away, and he was very up front. He said, `We want you here.' They made a terrific offer. It was too hard to turn down," Trombley said.
Trombley, 32, has matured into one of the game's most durable relievers ever since the Twins removed him from their rotation after the 1995 season. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged 73 appearances and nearly 89 innings.
Last season's May 21 trade of Twins closer Rick Aguilera to the Chicago Cubs offered Trombley his first consistent opportunity to step into that role. He converted 24 of 30 save chances, including 13 of his final 14 opportunities.
All parties played down the possibility of competition for the closer role. Thrift referred to Trombley as "a proven setup man," whose off-speed assortment complements Timlin's harder, heavier arsenal.
Trombley's switch to the bullpen coincided with his better use of a split-finger pitch and change-up. Stereotyped as a fly-ball pitcher vulnerable to home runs, he has developed into a control pitcher.
"I know the split-finger [fastball] has been good for me," Trombley said. "I think grass is going to help me tremendously. Just to get the ball on the ground is a plus. You get in there, work fast, throw strikes, get them off the field."
The Orioles have expressed persistent interest in free agent Mike Jackson, who served as manager Mike Hargrove's closer with the Cleveland Indians the past two seasons, and Angelos continues to negotiate with the agent for Rhodes, one of the Orioles' five free agents.
Disenchanted with former manager Ray Miller long before suffering a fractured finger on his pitching hand Aug. 22, Rhodes endured a troubled summer with the Orioles and is now seeking a four-year contract worth more than $3 million per season.
Thrift said yesterday it is "not out of line" that the club might commit more than $10 million combined to three relievers.