Rapp plugs last hole in O's rotation

Right-hander, 32, signs for 1 year, $750,000 in compromise move

No Sele, but no rookie either

6-7 with Red Sox

snow slowed physical, deal

January 29, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The Orioles had sought a high-profile free agent to bolster their pitching staff, only to be left holding the rosin bag. With spring training less than three weeks away, they were prepared instead to lower their sights and sift through the farm system.

In the end, they found comfortable footing on middle ground, signing veteran right-hander Pat Rapp to an incentive-laden one-year, $750,000 deal yesterday and plugging the final hole in their rotation.

The club also has a $2.3 million option for 2001. If it declines to exercise the option, Rapp would receive $300,000.

Before the Orioles could complete one of their last orders of business before spring training, they had to wait through stalled negotiations with one pitcher and a severe winter storm that delayed the arrival of another. They lost out on Aaron Sele, who signed with the Seattle Mariners after the Orioles attempted to restructure a four-year, $29 million deal, but the weather proved less of a diversion in securing Rapp.

The two sides apparently reached an agreement Jan. 21, and Rapp was supposed to arrive here Tuesday for his physical. But heavy snowfall in Baltimore kept him from leaving his Louisiana home until Thursday.

"I was already up and getting dressed Tuesday at 6 a.m. my time when they called and said the airport was closed. I jumped back into bed," he said.

Rapp had drawn some preliminary interest from Seattle and Tampa Bay before both clubs went in a different, more expensive direction. The Devil Rays signed former Oriole Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel while Rapp waited for an offer. He could have accepted a nonroster invitation elsewhere but found a better fit with the Orioles, who had made room on their 40-man roster by removing left-hander Jimmy Hamilton.

"Last year, I signed in the second week of January. Once it got past that point [this month], I was getting kind of nervous about the whole situation," said Rapp, who is 56-67 with a 4.46 ERA in eight major-league seasons.

"I figured I'd play somewhere. It was just looking for what was better for us."

Rapp, 32, will be pitching for his fifth club in four years. He was traded from Florida to San Francisco during the 1997 season, missing out on the Marlins' world championship, then made 32 starts for Kansas City in 1998. He signed with Boston as a free agent before last season and was 6-7 with a 4.12 ERA.

"The last couple of years it's just been a new team every year," Rapp said. "It's pretty hard, especially when you wait until almost February to sign. It gives you a pretty hard Christmas and New Year's with your family not knowing what's going on."

Eleven of Rapp's 37 appearances last year came out of the bullpen during the middle of the season. He returned to the rotation July 28 and went 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in his last 13 starts. Rapp was consistent in one area: both right-handers and left-handers batted .263 against him.

Rapp's signing again gives the Orioles an exclusively right-handed rotation. He'll most likely serve as the fifth starter, though a strong showing in Fort Lauderdale could push him ahead of No. 4 Jason Johnson, who has never pitched in the majors for a full season. A poor spring could move Rapp to the bullpen. Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson complete the rotation.

"Hopefully, we can all help each other out. Mike and Scott, I could probably learn a few things from those guys," Rapp said.

Unable to sign one of the more attractive free agents in a thin market, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift had discussed such minor-league options as Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro. Mercedes especially intrigued Thrift while mowing down hitters in the Dominican Winter League, but experience won out over potential. Thrift already had formed a favorable impression of Rapp while employed as a consultant in 1992 with San Francisco, which drafted the right-hander.

"I'd like to go to spring training with the ability to have six strong candidates for the starting rotation," Thrift said.

"We did a lot of homework. In the case of Pat, we had very good scouting reports on his velocity, his fastball, his curveball. Every one of our scouts who saw him rated his abilities as plus. He's always been under consideration from the very beginning. He's not somebody who came out of nowhere at the last minute."

Rapp will be reunited with two former Marlins teammates, Jeff Conine and catcher Charles Johnson. He hasn't spoken to either yet, deciding after the Sele fiasco to first make sure there were no concerns about his health. Majority owner Peter Angelos shied away from giving Sele a four-year contract after an examination showed moderate wear and tear in the pitcher's right shoulder.

"I was just kind of waiting to make sure all this physical stuff went through before I really talked to anybody," Rapp said. "It was prolonging every day. I had a couple buddies call and say, `I haven't seen it on the TV yet. I've been waiting to see it on the bottom of ESPN2.' I said, `Well, they're not going to announce it until I pass my physical.' They were like, `You better have your butt in shape.'

"I don't think that's part of the physical."

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