CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Orioles yesterday agreed to give veteran center fielder Andy Van Slyke an unpaid tryout that begins today, and are poised to sign him to a one-year contract worth about $700,000.
But could you have blamed Van Slyke if he got the impression general manager Roland Hemond had no interest? Over the past 10 days, Hemond:
* Refused Van Slyke's offer to work out with the Orioles. For free.
* Pulled a $1 million offer to Van Slyke off the table and said the Orioles were prepared to begin the season with Curtis Goodwin or Damon Buford in center field.
* Signed Kevin Bass, 35, and announced that he was happy with the makeup of the club and didn't foresee any roster additions before the start of the season.
Hemond and the Orioles suddenly did an about-face yesterday after being called by Van Slyke's agent who apparently lowered his salary demands, and if one reads between the lines spoken by manager Phil Regan, then it's fairly obvious Van Slyke is likely to make the club.
"We're going to work him out and see if he can play," Regan said.
Then he paused. "I'll say this: If he's healthy, he can play."
Sounds as if you want him, Phil.
Regan nodded and said, "We've just got to make sure he's OK."
Contacted at the Orioles team hotel in Sarasota last night, Van Slyke sounded confident, if still a bit puzzled by the recent turn of events.
"I'm not sure what they're looking for. Physically I feel fine," he said. "This whole thing with the Orioles has been a mystery to me. Hopefully in the next few days, the fog will rise and everything will become clear."
The Orioles must be somewhat clear about his physical well-being, because special assignment scout Fred Uhlman Sr. has been watching Van Slyke practice at the free-agent camp in Homestead, Fla.
A member of the Orioles organization said, "If Phil wants him, he's got him."
A baseball source said that Van Slyke, who had back problems playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year and hit .246 with six homers and 30 RBIs, has agreed orally to the one-year deal, with the stipulation that Regan wants him.
Read between the lines.
he's healthy," Regan said, "he can play center field. He's a pretty good hitter, and he can steal a base."
Hemond wouldn't discuss negotiations with Van Slyke, but it could be that Hemond's apparent lack of interest in Van Slyke was merely a negotiating ploy to drive down the outfielder's asking price. Some in the organization were perplexed that Van Slyke, 34, refused the Orioles' initial $1 million bid, particularly because they believed he had no other offers from which to choose.
Van Slyke made $3.65 million last year, and wanted about $1.5 million from the Orioles. Now, it appears he'll make about half that.
Van Slyke is expected to play in today's exhibition in Fort Myers against Minnesota, and then again tomorrow against the Red Sox.
"We should know if he's healthy [soon]," Regan said.
Signing Van Slyke gives Regan several options. He could make Van Slyke his everyday center fielder, sending Goodwin to Triple-A Rochester. He could platoon left-handed-hitting Van Slyke with right-handed-hitting Buford. He could start Goodwin in center field and use Van Slyke as a fourth outfielder, insurance against the possibility that Goodwin is a bust or Jeffrey Hammonds' surgically repaired knee doesn't hold up.
Van Slyke seemed open to about any possibility last week, saying that he'd be happy backing up Goodwin in case the rookie struggles. "With that pitching staff," Van Slyke said, "you would think they'd want someone around who can catch the ball. And I do have five Gold Gloves, so I can catch the ball."
It won't be an easy decision for Regan, and if the Orioles choose to go with Van Slyke on an everyday basis, it won't be an easy decision to explain to Goodwin or Buford.
Hemond said he felt good about the potential of the two outfielders and the talent in the organization and that he wanted to give them a chance to win regular jobs.
Buford went 1-for-4 in the Orioles' 8-6 exhibition loss to the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday and is batting .462 in spring training with a club-high five RBIs. Goodwin had a single in two at-bats, giving him an on-base percentage of .429.
Van Slyke is expected to ride the team bus to Fort Myers today.
Read between the lines.
Exhibition opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Fort Myers, Fla.
Time: 1:05 p.m.
Starters: Orioles' Sid Fernandez vs. Twins' Kevin Tapani
O'S WITH VAN SLYKE
The potential Orioles lineup with Andy Van Slyke starting in center field:
Brady Anderson .... .... LF
Bret Barberie ... .... .. 2B
Rafael Palmeiro ... .. .. 1B
Cal Ripken ... ... ... .. SS
Harold Baines ... ... ... DH
Chris Hoiles ... .. .. .. C
Andy Van Slyke .. . .. .. CF
Leo Gomez ... .... ... .. 3B
Jeffrey Hammonds ... .... RF