O's thinking about team first, right?

February 21, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Impossible as it might be, let's try to follow the Orioles' logic for alienating Charles Johnson. Let's try to understand their rationale, even if it gives us all a headache.

Point No. 1: Jayson Werth will be ready to replace Johnson by 2001 and no later than 2002. Terrific, the Orioles finally are ready to commit to a young player! A fine plan, except that Werth is no sure thing, and Johnson is all of 28.

Werth, 6 feet 5, 190 pounds, is a top prospect, but a wrist injury limited him to four home runs last season, and he has yet to play an inning at Triple-A. Most alarming, he might not even project as a catcher.

The player to whom Werth is most often compared is Dale Murphy, who converted from a catcher into a two-time MVP outfielder. Ultimately, the Orioles might not want a player who runs as well as Werth to beat up his knees catching.

But why digress with such heresy?

The Orioles haven't developed an impact position player for their own club since Cal Ripken. For the sake of the argument, let's try to be optimistic and assume they will make Werth into an All-Star catcher.

Point No. 2: Johnson will be signed through 2005 if the Orioles give him the five-year contract he is seeking, and the ascension of Werth would make him expendable.

A glut of talent at a premium position? The possibility of dealing from strength instead of weakness? Why even entertain such a notion?

A five-year deal would be perfectly reasonable as long as the Orioles kept their options open and declined to grant Johnson a no-trade clause. If Werth is as good as the Orioles think, either he or Johnson could bring a significant return in a trade.

Really, what's the problem?

Here's a team that gave Scott Erickson a five-year contract at 30, Albert Belle a five-year contract at 32 and Brady Anderson a five-year contract just before he turned 34.

Here's a team that also gave Chris Hoiles a five-year contract at 30, and Hoiles' inability to throw out base stealers was the reason club officials decided they needed Johnson, the game's second-best defensive catcher.

Chances are, Johnson's best seasons lie ahead. He thrived under the tutelage of hitting instructor Terry Crowley last season. And new manager Mike Hargrove will know better than to play him 135 games again.

Health is not an issue -- Johnson's last trip to the disabled list was in 1996. And who's to say Werth will be ready to take over the position full time even if he progresses on a fast track?

Jorge Posada shared the job for three seasons with Joe Girardi in New York before finally becoming the Yankees' No. 1 catcher this spring. Posada played his first full season at 25. Werth would be 21 if he opened with the Orioles in 2001.

Point No. 3: Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, is impossible to deal with, and he should be avoided at every possible turn -- unless he can be humiliated.

Let's assume the Orioles are perfectly justified in their apparent contempt for Boras, which is shared by many clubs.

The question then becomes, why did they trade a promising young talent like Armando Benitez for what will amount to a two-year rental of Johnson?

The Orioles won't admit to a problem with Boras, but their actions speak volumes. They haven't signed a Boras client long-term since Peter Angelos became owner in 1993. And they just went to salary arbitration for the second straight year with Johnson rather than split a $500,000 difference.

Here's a team that will guarantee a churl like Belle $65 million, but won't fork over another $250,000 as a peace offering to their good-guy starting catcher. Predictably, Johnson is now questioning his future in Baltimore, especially with the Orioles only offering him a three-year extension.

Why didn't the Orioles just settle and keep the lines of communication open? Why don't they offer Johnson four years and an option and turn Boras into the bad guy rather than lose another public relations battle?

Not only was it unnecessary to provoke such a confrontation, but, by the Orioles' own reckoning, it was also premature. Earlier this month, director of baseball operations Syd Thrift said of Werth: "We've got to wait and see. We'll know a lot more by the end of spring training."

Well, spring training has barely started, and the Orioles have already drawn their line in the sand. This from the same front office that attempted to trade B. J. Surhoff without his permission this winter, and now faces the stiff challenge of re-signing Mike Mussina before Opening Day.

Thrift said he told Johnson at the arbitration hearing that the Orioles' position was "not personal." But with the Orioles, every petty dispute is personal, as Jon Miller, Davey Johnson and Frank Wren -- among others -- could attest.

For those who care about such things, it's impressive that Orioles general counsel Russell Smouse hasn't lost an arbitration case in five years. But last time anyone checked, victories over Boras do not count in the standings.

The names change, the disputes change, but the result is usually the same. Why should the Johnson saga be any different? Another productive employee. Another pointless battle. Another pending departure.

You figure out the logic.

Me, I've got a headache.

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