O's swap salary figures

C. Johnson, club only $500,000 apart in arbitration exchange

Thrift: `I'm encouraged'

Heavy '99 load took toll on catcher's bat

January 19, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The Orioles and the agent for catcher Charles Johnson submitted their salary figures yesterday, and it appears the two sides could come to an agreement before reaching the arbitration table.

Scott Boras, who represents Johnson, is seeking $5.1 million. The Orioles have countered with a $4.6 million offer. The case will go before an arbitrator if the $500,000 gap remains.

"I would have to say I'm encouraged," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "I truly did not know what it [the difference] would be, but I'm always optimistic."

Johnson has been down this path before. After defeating the Florida Marlins two years ago, he filed again last January, one month after being acquired by the Orioles in a three-team trade that cost them promising reliever Armando Benitez. Johnson, who was earning $3.3 million, sought $5.1 million but had to settle for a modest $300,000 raise.

Offensively, this past season was a series of streaks and prolonged periods without rest. Johnson batted .176 with one homer and one RBI in April, then erupted for nine homers and 20 RBIs in May to go with a .329 average. He hit only three homers after June 25, giving him 16 for the season with 54 RBIs and a .251 average.

With backup catcher Lenny Webster injured for much of the season before getting released on July 20, Johnson played in 28 consecutive games -- including 27 starts -- from May 5 to June 4. He appeared in a career-high 135 games, and the heavy load seemed to take its toll, with Johnson batting only .205 in August before rebounding to hit .299 in the final month.

Johnson also set career highs in hits (107) and runs (58), and his homer and RBI totals were the second-most in his five full professional seasons.

Johnson had won four consecutive Gold Glove awards in the National League. That streak ended with his switch to the AL, the catching domain of the Texas Rangers' Ivan Rodriguez, but he threw out 37 of 93 (39.8 percent) attempted base stealers and had only one runner test him in his last 16 games.

In determining his salary figure for Johnson, Boras said he took into account "a whole complement of things." Boras looked at Johnson's value in certain areas, especially on defense, and also compared his statistics to those compiled by other catchers.

Boras declined to discuss the merits of the case before receiving the Orioles' offer and did not return calls last night.

If the Orioles fail to sign Johnson to a long-term deal this year, he'll be eligible for free agency after the season. Their best catching prospect, Jayson Werth, a first-round selection in the 1997 draft, is at least another year away from the majors after beginning last season at Single-A Frederick.

He finished at Double-A Bowie, but appeared in only 35 games there and missed almost a month with a wrist injury that slowed his progress. Werth batted only .197 after coming off the disabled list and might return to the Baysox this spring.

The Orioles are thin in the catching ranks beyond Werth. They signed Greg Myers to a two-year contract in December, but he's not regarded as an everyday solution. His value in the past has been as a backup or platoon player. The Orioles also lost two catchers, Tim DeCinces and Jaime Escalante, in the minor-league phase of last month's Rule 5 draft during the winter meetings in Anaheim. DeCinces was claimed by the San Diego Padres, and Escalante was taken by the Anaheim Angels.

Julio Vinas, who was named MVP at Triple-A Rochester after batting .312 with 20 homers and 83 RBIs, is a free agent and not projected by club officials as a major-league catcher. Tommy Davis, who appeared in five games with the Orioles in May, was removed from the 40-man roster and will get more work at the infield corners this spring as a potential utility player.

Boras has contacted the Orioles to gauge their interest in beginning talks on a long-term contract for Johnson. So far, he's been put on hold.

"There's been no discussion on that at this point," said Thrift. "I think we'll just have to wait and see. We have a new manager and some new coaches. I think everyone should have an opportunity to have some input."

Yesterday began with 78 players eligible for arbitration throughout the majors, and was down to 52 by the time figures were exchanged. Johnson was the only Oriole to file after reliever Al Reyes signed a one-year, $620,000 contract on Friday. Reyes went 2-3 with a 4.85 ERA in 27 games after being acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers on July 21 for pitcher Rocky Coppinger.

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