C. Johnson put on hold by Orioles

Mussina approached about extension, but catcher told to wait

Werth's status plays a part

`We'll know lot more [after] spring training'

February 08, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos has initiated talks regarding a contract extension with pitcher Mike Mussina but has adopted a wait-and-see approach in dealing with Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson, who like Mussina is eligible for free agency after the 2000 season.

While Angelos hopes to sign the team's right-handed ace to a deal extending at least through 2005, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift acknowledged "we don't have a game plan yet" on how to proceed with Johnson, largely because of a preference to begin deploying talent from the minor-league system, such as catching prospect Jayson Werth.

Johnson is the Orioles' only arbitration-eligible player. Scheduled for a Feb. 16 hearing, Johnson's bid for a $5.1 million 2000 salary was countered by the club's $4.6 million offer. The difference is considered relatively small, especially compared to last February, when the club bested Johnson in a hearing that left him with a $3.6 million salary last season instead of his $5.1 million bid.

The sides may reach a compromise any time before the matter is handed over to an arbitrator. Failure to avoid a hearing may strain a relationship that endured a rough start shortly after the Orioles acquired Johnson in a three-team trade Dec. 1, 1998, that sent closer Armando Benitez to the New York Mets.

Johnson began last year irritated by his arbitration loss and was puzzled during the season when the club failed to approach him about a long-term arrangement.

Angelos and Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, have not enjoyed an easy relationship since former pitcher Ben McDonald, another Boras client, left town after the 1995 season.

Despite a sluggish April and a fatigued September, Johnson hit .251 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs last season while appearing in a career-high 135 games, including one stretch of 27 starts while playing in 28 consecutive games from May 5 to June 4.

Johnson homered once and produced five extra-base hits after Aug. 6. He also produced 10 RBIs in his final 150 at-bats, after an April in which he labored for one RBI in 51 at-bats.

In between, Johnson averaged an RBI every 5.23 at-bats.

Johnson also served as a deterrent to opponents who had traditionally run unchallenged against Orioles pitchers. A four-time Gold Glove recipient with the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers, Johnson threw out 39.8 percent of would-be base-stealers last season. In 1999, Orioles' opponents stole 93 bases, lowest for a full season since 1980.

The Orioles' decision is complicated by the presence of Werth, whom the Orioles made the 22nd overall pick of the 1997 amateur draft. Werth, 20, split last season between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, batting .305 with 30 RBIs in 66 games at Frederick and .273 in 35 games at Bowie. A wrist injury suffered at Bowie cost Werth a month; he returned to bat .197 in 66 at-bats after being on the disabled list.

"We've got to wait and see. We'll know a lot more by the end of spring training," Thrift said. "I think we'll know a lot by the end of March. We've got to see where Werth really is, because last year he had a season that wasn't really recognizable."

If the Orioles sign Johnson, they would effectively block Werth's graduation, which the organization believes would come no later than 2002.

Thrift said it's possible Werth could make the major-league roster by the 2001 season.

However, some scouts question whether the 6-foot-5 Werth projects as a catcher. His most valuable offensive tools are speed and a line-drive bat. Defensively, Werth's lanky frame represents a challenge to his development of a quick release.

The December signing of veteran catcher Greg Myers to a two-year deal represents a safety net should the club opt to promote Werth rather than commit to Johnson.

"I think the signing of Myers was a significant signing. It's huge. But nobody has talked about that," Thrift said.

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