SARASOTA, Fla. -- The baseball world has evolved into a game of musical chairs, big-name trades and big-name free agents signing new contracts.
But while the rival New York Yankees acquired the National League's best reliever yesterday -- Montreal's John Wetteland -- the Orioles, thus far, remain empty-handed in this buyer's market, having failed in their attempt to lure closer John Franco ,, away from the New York Mets.
The Orioles were also one of four teams in the running for All-Star center fielder Marquis Grissom, perhaps the game's best center fielder and leadoff man and the last in a trio of Expos stars to be dumped for financial reasons (Montreal also traded pitcher Ken Hill to the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday).
But those talks appear to be dead. According to sources familiar with the trade discussions between the Orioles and Expos, Montreal general manager Kevin Malone asked for two Orioles' minor-league prospects: outfielder Alex Ochoa, who hit .301 with 28 stolen bases at Double-A Bowie last year, and pitcher Jimmy Haynes, 14-8 in 28 starts for Bowie and Triple-A Rochester in '94.
The Orioles weren't interested, probably because of Grissom's potential price tag -- he could be offered more than $5 million annually once he becomes eligible for free agency after this year -- and because Ochoa, 23, is so highly regarded.
Grissom, who turns 28 on April 17, has averaged more than 60 stolen bases per season over the past four years.
It's unclear whether the Boston Red Sox, Florida Marlins or Los Angeles Dodgers have the inside track on Grissom. But this much is for sure: Grissom will be dealt, in the most incredible and instant player purge since former Oakland owner Charles Finley attempted to sell Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox in the summer of 1976.
The Expos had one of the best teams in baseball last year and had started drawing fans. But the strike wiped out any World Series dreams and decimated the franchise financially; Montreal owner Claude Brochu claimed losses of $20 million.
Wetteland, Hill and Grissom are eligible for arbitration under baseball's restored economic structure, and Malone stated, quite frankly, that he would not be able to pay the three All-Stars.
So Montreal's version of the salary dump started yesterday in stunning fashion: Before noon, Malone announced that Wetteland had been traded to the Yankees for 20-year-old outfielder Fernando Seguignol, a player to be named and an undisclosed amount of cash. Hours later, Hill went to St. Louis for pitcher Bryan Eversgerd and two minor-leaguers.
Wetteland, who saved 25 games for the Expos last year, will team with Steve Howe to give New York an imposing righty-lefty bullpen combination.
The Orioles had asked about Wetteland, but Malone, as he had done last year when dangling outfielder Larry Walker, wanted reliever Armando Benitez in return.
Orioles general manager Roland Hemond would not discuss specifics of the trade negotiations, but said he hadn't talked with Malone about Wetteland in two or three days.
"They threw out the possibility of some names," said Hemond, "and then said they were going to check with some other clubs. I didn't know if we'd hear back from them."
Hemond was having a bad day even before Wetteland joined the Yankees. Early in the morning, Franco informed Hemond that he intended to remain in his native New York and re-sign with the Mets for less money than he was being offered by the Orioles.
Franco's two-year package from the Mets included a base salary of $2.5 million per year, plus the possibility of earning $400,000 each year in incentives.
The Orioles offered a two-year deal with a $2.8 million salary in the first year and a chance to earn $200,000 in incentives; any incentives earned in the first year would be applied to the second year of his contract in base salary. Meaning that Franco had a chance to earn $6.2 million for two years had he elected to pitch in Camden Yards.
But he decided to stay at home.
The Orioles had the inside track on Franco in mid-February, when the owners' signing freeze went into effect. At that time, they were offering a two-year, $5.2 million contract, much better than the Mets' one-year, $2 million offer, with a $2 million option on the second year.
Franco wanted the second year of the Mets' offer to be guaranteed, and late last week, Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine started improving the deal, guaranteeing the second year and increasing the money.
Franco's case was helped out by manager Dallas Green, who said the Mets needed to re-sign the 34-year-old reliever, and by teammate Bret Saberhagen, who continually called Mets ownership to implore that they retain Franco.
On Tuesday, the Orioles bumped their bid upward and even offered to pay the rent for an Inner Harbor condominium -- a peace offering to Franco's family, which wanted him to stay in New York. But that didn't sway the left-hander.
"That's his choice," Hemond said. "That's the right of a free agent. He's accustomed to being at home. Sometimes the family situation is such that he decides he's better off playing closer to home."
The Orioles now must look for bullpen help elsewhere, among free agents and the players who aren't tendered contracts by other teams this week. And they need help.
"I'm concerned about the bullpen," said Orioles manager Phil Regan, noting the lack of depth.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, there is a sharp drop-off in the quality of available relievers now that Franco and Wetteland are off the market.
They could sign 37-year-old free-agent reliever Doug Jones, who is being courted by the Brewers. Milwaukee's Mike Fetters could be acquired in a trade for almost nothing, because the Brewers may decide not to tender him a contract rather than offer him arbitration.
Kansas City's Tom "Flash" Gordon would be willing to convert to the bullpen if a team is willing to make an investment in him.
The Orioles have lots of work to do on their bullpen, and Opening Day is less than three weeks away.
BUSY BASEBALL DAY
* Reliever John Franco stays with the Mets for $5 million over two years.
* Montreal trades reliever John Wetteland -- like Franco sought by the Orioles -- to Baltimore's main rival in the AL East, the Yankees.
* The Expos trade pitcher Ken Hill to the Cardinals for three players.
* The Royals trade outfielder Brian McRae to the Cubs for two minor-league pitchers.
HOW ORIOLES, YANKEES COMPARE
This is how the respective pitching staffs of the Orioles and Yankees stack up as of today:
.. .. .. .. .. .Orioles .. .. .. .. .... .Yankees
No. 1 starter ..Mike Mussina (16-5) .. .. Jimmy Key (17-4)
No. 2 starter ..Ben McDonald (14-7) .. .. .Jack McDowell (10-9)
No. 3 starter ..Sid Fernandez (6-6) .. .. .Melido Perez (9-4)
No. 4 starter ..Arthur Rhodes (3-5) .. .. .Scott Kamieniecki (8-6)
Closer . .. .. Armando Benitez (0 saves) .John Wetteland (25saves)
LH setup .. .. .Brad Pennington (0 saves) .Steve Howe (15 saves)
RH setup .. .. .Alan Mills (2 saves) .. .. Bob Wickman (6 saves)