O's, Angels covet Lee Smith but explore options

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The signing of Matt Nokes represents only the beginning of the Orioles' plan to buy a championship team in the midst of the game's longest work stoppage.

They also have overcome their indecisiveness on the Lee Smith front and hope to retain their closer, who has given the California Angels no indication he is prepared to accept the club's two-year offer in the $4 million-to-$4.5 million range (plus incentives).

The Angels have given Smith no deadline, and continue to look elsewhere for a closer. If they land Smith, they will consider that a bonus.

"We understand he's not ready yet, but that doesn't mean we have all of our eggs in Lee Smith's basket, either," Angels general manager Bill Bavasi said. "We're going to continue to look for a closer, and if we find one, so be it."

Angels manager Marcel Lachemann lobbied Smith in a recent telephone conversation.

"He sounded pretty up tempo," Lachemann said. "He's got different things he's got to mull over in his mind. He wants to play for a winner, and he thinks we're the kind of team that has a chance to win. I told him, 'We need some things to win, and, let's be honest, you're one of those things.' "

The Orioles feel the same way about Smith.

"Yes, we're still talking," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said.

As are the Angels, the Orioles are not assuming they will land baseball's all-time saves leader. They, too, are investigating other options, including Cleveland Indians closer Jeff Russell.

Even if the Orioles bring back Smith, they don't plan to stop the bucks there. They continue to talk with right fielder Jay Buhner's agent, Alan Hendricks.

They also could tap the free-agent market for a designated hitter, either bringing back Harold Baines or signing Chicago White Sox free agent Julio Franco.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have extended the best offer (three years in length is the best guess) to Philadelphia Phillies free-agent left-hander Danny Jackson.

The Colorado Rockies also have made an offer to Jackson, two years in length, but the Orioles have even deeper pockets.

The terms of the Rockies' offer to Jackson? Hemond and Jackson's agent, Ron Shapiro, won't say, both men believing it's best to negotiate in private.

Whatever the figure, it's evident the Orioles are not letting the uncertainty of the game's economic system dictate their off-season policy. They could be setting themselves up for a major shock if there is a salary cap, but they appear willing to take that risk.

Many clubs have chosen not to gamble.

New St. Louis Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty wants to beef up the club's pitching staff, but feels handcuffed by the work stoppage.

"We're interested in pitching, acquiring a No. 1 or a No. 2 starter, but right now I haven't made any offers to anybody," Jocketty said. "I'm still up in the air about what the rules are going to be, how much we can spend, who's going to be available, who's not going to be available."

McLemore, Oates could reunite

Mark McLemore, a Type B free agent -- which means the team that signs him before Dec. 17 must surrender a second-round draft pick as compensation -- appears headed to the Texas Rangers, where he would be reunited with manager Johnny Oates.

To pave the way for that reunion, the Orioles have agreed to waive the compensation should the Rangers sign him.

The Orioles stopped pursuing McLemore when they acquired second baseman Bret Barberie from the Florida Marlins for pitching prospect Jay Powell.

Alexander still in O's plans

With Cal Ripken gobbling nearly every inning at shortstop, the Orioles plan to have Manny Alexander fill a utility infield role.

"Manny will play some at second and short," Hemond said. "And with his hands and arm, I'm sure he would have no trouble playing third."

Orioles manager Phil Regan likes the idea of Alexander on his roster, which is a good thing, because he is out of contract options and would have to clear waivers before being sent down.

"I like his speed," Regan said.

Alexander is playing in the Dominican Republic, as is Armando Benitez, who consistently has been clocked over 100 mph.

Goodwin ahead of Ochoa

There is a difference of opinion throughout baseball as to which of the Orioles' two young outfield prospects has the better long-range future, but the question of which will make it to the majors first appears easier to answer.

Curtis Goodwin seems to be running ahead of longtime teammate Alex Ochoa in their race to reach the major leagues.

Regan scouted both players in three Arizona Fall League games, chatted with them, and encouraged them to go to Venezuela to play for the team he managed, the Caracas Lions. Goodwin followed the advice, but Ochoa decided to rest in preparation for spring training.

"A guy like him could come very fast because he runs so well," Regan said of Goodwin. "He looked a little bit young, but who knows, with the Arizona League and the winter league, it could accelerate him a little. He could come into spring training having made a great deal of progress."

Goodwin batted .286 for Double-A Bowie this past season. He stole 55 bases in 65 attempts, displayed superior range in the outfield, but had only a .332 on-base percentage.

"I think playing in Arizona will really help him," Regan said. "It's a good league. It gives him more experience in an intense situation, and it exposes him to more pitching. The fact he's willing to go down there shows me he really wants to play and wants to learn."

Regan said he liked what he saw from Ochoa, but the manager wasn't ready to deem the strong-armed right fielder major-league ready.

"He's fine with his arm and fielding, and he's got some power," Regan said. "But it looked like he chased the ball a little on breaking balls. He looks almost like he needs another year of Triple-A."

Of course, Ochoa always could play his way onto the team in spring training.

Assessing the losses

Former Bowie Baysox manager Pete Mackanin, now with the Montreal Expos' Triple-A affiliate, did not second-guess the Orioles for leaving left-hander Vaughn Eshelman exposed in the Rule V draft. Eshelman was selected by the Boston Red Sox, who must keep him on the major-league club all season or offer him back to the Orioles for $25,000.

"I would not have protected him," Mackanin said. "Vaughn very well might make it to the big leagues and he might be successful, but I don't think it was a mistake leaving him unprotected."

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