It hardly came as a surprise when the Orioles fit two of their veteran pieces back into the puzzle yesterday with the signing of Harold Baines and Tim Hulett.
Both had declared for free agency, but also had expressed a desire to return, and it was evident from the outset they remained in the club's plans -- Baines as the primary designated hitter and Hulett in a reserve infield role.
When Mike Pagliarulo, a left-handed-hitting third baseman, announced Wednesday that he would play in Japan next season, the signing of the two became even more important.
"They are winning-type players," general manager Roland Hemond said of Hulett and Baines. "They gave us real good production and we'rehappy to have them back."
From his home in Richmond, Va., manager Johnny Oates reacted predictably. "They are two of the veterans we're counting on to lead us this year," he said. "Needless to say, I'm real happy to have them back."
Obtained from Oakland a year ago, Baines, 34, enjoyed a solid season in his return to his home state. The St. Michaels resident hit a career-high .313 with 20 home runs and 78 RBIs in 118 games. It was the eighth time in his career that Baines hit 20 or more home runs, but only the second time in the past six years.
Had it not been for a rib-cage injury that put him on the disabled list for the first time in his career (May 5-27), Baines probably would've finished among the league leaders in three categories. He was 22 plate appearances short of posting the American League's eighth-highest batting average, and 10th-best slugging (.510) and on-base (.390) percentages.
"I had hoped to play more games, but for the time I had on the field I think I put up numbers I had hoped for," said Baines, who was rewarded with a one-year contract for $1.8 million plus possible performance bonuses. "Hopefully I'll be able to play more games [next season]."
Two days after last season ended, Baines underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his chronically sore left knee. "I feel fine now and hopefully it will help my performance.
"I'm being as cautious as possible and I expect to be able to start hitting in January," said Baines. "There's no doubt that helped me last year. Before, all I could do was hit against a machine -- it helped to be able to see live pitching [at the indoor facilities at Camden Yards]."
Baines said he never seriously considered another offer. "My first choice was the Orioles," he said. "I wanted to be back home again. It was nice to be able to spend more time with my family, and I think that helped."
Hulett, 33, whose contract calls for $550,000 plus incentives, enjoyed the best season of the five years he's spent in Baltimore. A wrist injury to Leo Gomez made him the starting third baseman for 31 straight games (July 18-Aug. 13). He hit .357 (40-for-112) during that stretch en route to a final .300 average in 85 games, platooning with Pagliarulo for the last seven weeks.
On Wednesday, Pagliarulo accepted an offer to play in Japan with the Seibu Lions. His one-year deal is worth an estimated $1 million.
To make room for Baines and Hulett on the 40-man roster, the Orioles asked release waivers on Mark Parent, most likely ending any chance of the veteran catcher returning next year. Under baseball rules a team cannot re-sign a released player until May 1 of the following year.
The team had opened one roster spot on Wednesday by outrighting infielder T. R. Lewis, 22.