Moss, Johnson are free agents

Orioles decline to offer contracts for 2004 to two starting pitchers

`An organizational decision'

Club expected to look elsewhere for help

O's interested in Ponson

December 21, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Jason Johnson's status as having the longest continuous service time among current Orioles apparently is over.

The Orioles turned Johnson and another pitcher, left-hander Damian Moss, into free agents yesterday by declining to offer them contracts for 2004. The club tendered its remaining arbitration-eligible players: Jay Gibbons, Melvin Mora, Jerry Hairston, B.J. Ryan and Luis Matos.

The Orioles are allowed to negotiate cheaper deals for Johnson and Moss, who would have received significant raises in arbitration after earning $2.9 million and $1.55 million, respectively, but they're expected to look elsewhere for rotation help.

"It was an organizational decision, with all factors considered, that arbitration was not going to be offered," said Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations.

"We really don't know at this time what the next couple of weeks holds, but at this point in the process, we just weren't comfortable offering arbitration."

If the season began tomorrow, the club would have to sort through a group that included Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth, Eric DuBose, Omar Daal, Matt Riley and Rick Bauer to come up with five starters. The Orioles have expressed interest in bringing back free agent Sidney Ponson, but the Texas Rangers seem poised to begin serious negotiations with his representative, Barry Praver.

"We've had some preliminary conversations [about Ponson]," Flanagan said. "We haven't really gotten down to anything near specifics."

Johnson, acquired from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in March 1999 for outfielder Danny Clyburn, matched his career high in victories last season while going 10-10 with a 4.18 ERA in 189 2/3 innings. But after a 4-0 start, he went 6-10 and was winless in his last nine appearances.

In parts of seven major league seasons, Johnson is 36-58 with a 4.91 ERA in 149 games.

Johnson and his agent, Tommy Tanzer, didn't return calls yesterday.

Moss arrived in Baltimore overweight after a July trade that sent Ponson to the San Francisco Giants, and he lost favor with the Orioles while going 1-5 with a 6.22 ERA in 10 appearances, including nine starts. He vowed to hire a personal trainer after the season.

The Orioles still retain two pitchers from the deal - Ainsworth and minor league left-hander Ryan Hannaman.

By being non-tendered, Moss is prepared to join his fourth team in four years. He went 9-7 with a 4.70 ERA in 2003 before the Giants traded him, and he's 22-18 with a 4.22 ERA in 69 major league games.

Yesterday was the final day for teams to offer contracts to players on the 40-man roster.

Gibbons, Mora, Hairston, Ryan and Matos can submit their salary figures to the club on Jan. 15 if they haven't signed, with the Orioles making counteroffers three days later. Dates for arbitration hearings will be set if agreements can't be reached.

Mora earned $1.725 million this year and could be the Opening Day third baseman in 2004 if the Orioles don't fill the position through a trade or free agency. He was the team's only representative at the All-Star Game, and led the American League in batting from June 9 until the final day before the break. But he missed most of the second half with a hand injury and finished at .317 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs.

Hairston made $1.55 million last season, Ryan earned $762,500, and Gibbons made $375,000.

Matos, who made $310,000, qualified for arbitration as a Super Two player.

Most players aren't eligible for arbitration until after they have played three full seasons in the big leagues, but a special clause in the collective bargaining agreement rewards players who fall just short of three years. Of all the players with two-plus years of experience, the top 17 percent based on service time qualify for arbitration as Super Twos.

Outfielder B.J. Surhoff turned down the Orioles' arbitration offer on Friday, but only to continue negotiations that might culminate in a deal later this week. The team has until Jan. 8 to re-sign him.

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