O's hand Sele ball, 4-year deal

18-game winner agrees to $29 million contract, industry sources say

Announcement imminent

29-year-old was 37-20 for Rangers in '98-99

January 07, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Applying the finishing touches to their latest roster makeover before spring training, the Orioles have reached agreement with free-agent pitcher Aaron Sele on a four-year deal worth about $29 million, according to industry sources.

Sele, 18-9 last season and considered the most appealing pitcher left on the market, would serve at least as the No. 3 starter while allowing the club to lower Sidney Ponson into the fourth slot and Jason Johnson to the fifth. He also would again give the Orioles an exclusively right-handed rotation.

Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations, said he expected to have "a decision" by the weekend regarding whether the Orioles were successful in adding a starter, but he stopped short of saying Sele and free agent Andy Benes were the front-runners.

However, sources indicated that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who had been the other team competing with the Orioles for Sele, dropped out of the bidding. And Benes has stated his desire to return to St. Louis, where he pitched in 1996 and 1997 before signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"There's always a possibility of something not happening," said Thrift, who also had targeted Omar Olivares and left-hander Darren Oliver.

Told of the rumblings that Sele had agreed to terms with the Orioles, a source said: "I wouldn't say rumblings. I'd say that's a reality."

The club could make a formal announcement regarding Sele as early as today, pending the results of his physical.

Sele, 29, turned down a four-year, $28 million offer from the Texas Rangers, for whom he went 37-20 the past two seasons. A first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1991, he never had won more than 13 games until the season before joining the Rangers in a November 1997 trade. He was 19-11 with a 4.23 ERA in 1998 and followed that by going 18-9 with a 4.79 ERA.

Sele finished 1999 strongly, going 11-3 with a 4.00 ERA as the Rangers secured the American League West title. Benefiting last season from the AL's third-best run support (7.46 per nine innings), he became one of only four major-league pitchers to win at least 18 games the past two years, joining Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown and Greg Maddux. He is tied with Maddux and Jose Lima for the second-most wins the past two years, behind Martinez's 42.

He'll be one of the many new faces in the Fort Lauderdale Stadium clubhouse when pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Feb. 17. Only closer Mike Timlin remains from the bullpen that opened last season under former manager Ray Miller, who placed much of the blame for his team's fourth-place finish on the inability of his relievers to hold late-inning leads or bail out his starters when they exited games early.

Sele has overcome past physical problems to make 33 starts each of the past three seasons. His signing gives the Orioles three starters who won at least 15 games last year, and a fourth who is projected to win at least that many.

By giving Sele four years with money significantly deferred, the Orioles reversed their stance during the winter meetings, when club officials said they wouldn't offer a deal of that length to any pitcher. But they were determined to add a starter as the last step to reconstructing a staff that was one of the larger disappointments last season.

The Orioles already had broken policy last year by giving No. 2 starter Scott Erickson a five-year deal. They've done so again by giving Sele a higher annual salary than staff ace Mike Mussina, who will make around $6.8 million next season in the final year of his contract.

The club has held initial talks with Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, on a contract extension, but the right-hander wanted to see which direction the Orioles took in filling the last vacancy in the rotation. One possibility had been 20-year-old Matt Riley, the leading prospect in the organization, who began last season at Single-A Frederick and made three September starts with the Orioles. Riley now seems destined for Triple-A Rochester, though Thrift recently said that the left-hander could work out of the bullpen while building up innings and gaining experience.

Sele's ratio of 1.86 ground balls to fly balls was third best in the American League, but he will be going from a home park with pitcher-friendly outfield dimensions to one he has struggled in.

He has made nine starts at Camden Yards, going 3-2 with a 5.82 ERA. Most recently, he defeated the Orioles in a July 27 game while allowing eight hits and five earned runs -- including two homers -- in six innings. He made another start here on May 22, getting no decision after allowing three runs in six innings. Six days earlier, the Orioles rocked him for nine runs and 11 hits in only 2 1/3 innings in Arlington.

Meanwhile, Scott Boras, the agent for Benes (13-12, 4.81 ERA), said there are four teams still in the running for his client.

"It's been a game of musical chairs," he said. "When [Chuck] Finley signed, then [Kenny] Rogers was the focus. Then when Rogers signed, I think Sele was the focus. Now, Benes and Oliver and Olivares will be the focus."

How Sele fared

Aaron Sele's ranking last season among American League pitchers:

Category Rank Stat

Wins T2nd 18

Won-lost pct. 5th .667

Shutouts T2nd 2

Hits allowed T2nd 244

Hit batters T3rd 12

Doubles allowed 1st 56

Strikeouts 3rd 186

Ground/fly ratio 3rd 1.86

Support/9 inn. 3rd 7.46

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