Johnson jabs O's for giving him hook

Tigers pitcher: Ex-team lacked professionalism

April 15, 2004|By Peter Schmuck and Joe Christensen | Peter Schmuck and Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - Right-hander Jason Johnson is enjoying his newfound status as the Detroit Tigers' No. 1 starting pitcher, but he still wonders why he wasn't in the Orioles' plans for this year.

"I was surprised," he said. "They didn't even give me a chance. They didn't even call my agent. They just assumed that I was going to ask for too much money in arbitration."

That's about the size of it. The Orioles expected a pitcher with Johnson's service time and statistics to command more than $4 million in salary arbitration, which was more than they were willing to pay a pitcher who was 10-10 last year.

So the team that had signed him to a two-year, $4.7 million contract two years earlier chose not to tender him a contract by the Dec. 20 deadline for retaining the rights to him. They also non-tendered pitcher Damian Moss at the same time.

"We knew we weren't going to go through arbitration with [Johnson], and we just felt he should get a start someplace else," said Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie.

But Johnson said he was not interested in squeezing the last dollar out of his arbitration eligibility. He wanted to stay in Baltimore and says he happily would have signed a reasonable two-year deal to help solidify the club's youth-oriented rotation.

"It was logical that I'd make a pretty good amount of money, but all they had to do was ask," he said. "I think there was a lack of professionalism on their part. I was hoping to get a two-year deal for less. I wasn't trying to get $5 million in arbitration. ... that's their loss.

If it sounds like a classic communications breakdown, it probably cut both ways.

"His agent [Tommy Tanzer] was upset with us when we told him we were going to non-tender him because he thought we were using that as a negotiating ploy," Beattie said. "We weren't using that as a negotiating ploy at all.

"When we had Jason, obviously we were well within our rights to hold onto him until the non-tender period. And since it had gotten out there that we were thinking about non-tendering him, we wanted to see if there were deals available to trade him."

Of course, the prospect of his becoming available as an unrestricted free agent - and the likelihood of an arbitration windfall - made it difficult for the Orioles to get anything in trade for Johnson. Ten days after he was cut loose by the Orioles, the Tigers gave him a two-year deal worth $7 million.

"I enjoyed my time there," Johnson said, "but now that I'm with the Tigers, I think it was time for me to leave the Orioles. I didn't think I was appreciated there that much."

Johnson made the most of his Opening Day start, pitching six scoreless innings to defeat the Toronto Blue Jays and begin one of the best opening weeks in club history. He displayed the same inconsistency that hampered him in Baltimore in his second start, giving up six runs (and three homers) over 2 1/3 innings against the Minnesota Twins. He's 1-1 with a 6.48 ERA.

He wasn't the only player in the Tigers' clubhouse who had issues with the Orioles' front office last year. Ivan Rodriguez nearly signed with the Orioles, but he accepted a long-term contract (that could be worth up to $40 million) to play in Detroit after Orioles officials cut off negotiations and signed free agent catcher Javy Lopez instead.

"I was very close [to signing]," Rodriguez said. "I had come within minutes, maybe hours of getting a deal done. I don't know what happened. Now I'm here in Detroit, and I think this is going to be a great ballclub, but I wish everybody the best."

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