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With no GM, players sell free agents on Orioles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orioles farm director Syd Thrift made a good point the other day when discussing the ways in which the club is operating without a general manager.

Asked about how the Orioles are pursuing free agents, such as Roberto Alomar and Ron Gant, without a point man, Thrift mentioned the integral role that players have in wooing other players.

"These guys talk to each other all the time," Thrift said. "People tend to forget that, but that can make a big difference. Right now, Robbie Alomar is playing on the same team in Puerto Rico as Bobby Bonilla, and you better believe Bobby is filling his ear."

Saying good things no doubt, for Bonilla repeatedly said after being acquired how much he liked going to work at Camden Yards, before a full house.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro has talked to Alomar in the past, and during the season, Alomar approached several Orioles about wanting to play at Camden Yards. In no way does this mean it's a lock Alomar is going to be an Oriole -- Alomar probably said the same thing to members of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, in a subtle effort to boost his already substantial negotiating leverage -- but having personal contacts helps.

Kevin Brown became an Oriole in large part because of his relationship to a former Texas Rangers teammate, Palmeiro. Palmeiro said good things about the club and Baltimore, mentioning how well the sinkerballer Brown would pitch on the thick grass of Camden Yards. When Brown expressed interest, Palmeiro relayed these thoughts to the guy with veto power, Peter Angelos. Eventually, the deal was done.

Left-hander Kenny Rogers, a free agent this year, has spoken with Palmeiro about Baltimore. The fact that Cal Ripken is a good friend of Eddie Murray's obviously increases the odds of Murray signing with the Orioles. The Astros' chances of re-signing Craig Biggio are improved by Biggio's close friendship with All-Star first baseman Jeff Bagwell. St. Louis is expected to bid for Andy Benes, and a primary reason is that one of its top prospects is younger brother Alan Benes.

Thrift is right, and should the Orioles land Alomar or Rogers, remember that Bonilla and Palmeiro likely did more for the club than hit homers.

Murray to return?

Cleveland officials met with free-agent designated hitter Paul Molitor, another sign the Indians are going to replace Murray. The Indians want a right-handed hitter and someone to hit second, and Molitor would fill both needs. They may also bid on first basemen Mark Grace and Fred McGriff.

But Indians manager Mike Hargrove frets over what losing Murray will mean in the Cleveland clubhouse, where Murray held PTC great influence. Sources with the Indians and Orioles expect to see Murray in a Baltimore uniform next year, which he'll begin 21 homers short of 500 for his career.

Molitor also is talking to Milwaukee, Minnesota and Cleveland. Which team does he favor?

Said Molitor: "As Judge Ito is fond of reminding us, don't talk amongst yourselves, don't form an opinion and hear all the evidence first." Milwaukee seems a perfect fit for Molitor, though.

* Devon White wanted to be closer to his ailing father, who lives in Jamaica, an important aspect of the Gold Glove center fielder's decision to sign with the Florida Marlins. Toronto will try to land either Otis Nixon or Lance Johnson as a replacement, although Molitor isn't so sure a true replacement can be found.

"It causes a hole," Molitor said, "and I'd be worried about the effect it has on other free agents. Devon White was an appealing factor to free-agent pitchers considering coming here."

* Why the Yankees dealt for catcher Joe Girardi is a mystery. The Yankees wanted to improve upon the defense of outgoing catcher Mike Stanley, and they got Girardi, who's really not any better and is a poor run-producer. At least Stanley hits homers.

When best isn't the best

Shortstop Ozzie Smith, perhaps the greatest defensive player in the history of the game, propelled the Cardinals to pennants in his prime. Now he's a giant pain in the neck for that franchise.

Smith's throwing shoulder has gradually worsened, and all things being equal, the club would prefer to find a substitute and bid the future Hall of Famer a happy farewell. But Smith wants to play, and does not want to play second base or be a utility man.

A $3 million option on his '96 contract will kick in if an independent doctor says his shoulder is sound. The Cardinals have submitted the names of seven doctors to Smith and his representatives, who must choose one to perform the examination. If Doctor Doe says Smith is ready to go, he's on the team. A rather strange way to go about forming your club.

St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty bid on Walt Weiss (and failed, when Weiss signed with Colorado) and is talking to the agent for shortstop Greg Gagne.

* The Yankees are going about their business as they did in the early '80s. That is to say, with little apparent semblance of a coherent plan. Remember when owner George Steinbrenner decided the Yankees needed more stolen bases and they signed speedster Dave Collins without having an actual position in mind for him to play?

Well, this off-season, their first move was not to determine the fate of former GM Gene Michael or ex-manager Buck Showalter, but to sign Dwight Gooden. They traded for Girardi, a poor fit. Now the Yankees are in contact with McGriff and Grace, who are completely different as hitters. McGriff is power, and Grace is a line-drive hitter more along the lines of Don Mattingly. This is a disaster in the making.

* Signing Alomar is not only a good idea for the Orioles, but given the way the market is shaping up, it is becoming imperative. It looks more and more as if Biggio is going to land in the NL, with Houston, Colorado or a stealth bidder that may be revealed later this week. If the Orioles don't sign Alomar, they are left with some extremely poor alternatives, defensively and offensively. Lose Alomar and they'll have to go after another leadoff hitter, like Tony Phillips, because new Orioles manager Davey Johnson has said he wants someone with a higher on-base percentage than Brady Anderson batting first.

* The Mariners' Ken Griffey will have a metal plate removed from his left wrist next week.

* Ken Griffey Sr. landed a job as hitting coach for Colorado. He's the Rockies' fourth hitting coach in four years. Griffey was a candidate to be a hitting coach for the Orioles, but Johnson told him he could not make a hire until after the Orioles named a GM.

Mondesi makes his mark

Dodgers right fielder Raul Mondesi became only the second Los Angeles outfielder since 1973 to win a Gold Glove. The other was Dusty Baker. He is the first NL outfielder from the Dominican Republic to win since Cincinnati's Cesar Geronimo in 1977.

* The biggest needs for Houston, said new GM Gerry Hunsicker, are at third base and pitching. Hunsicker is counting on Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell to carry the Astros' staff next year, which means Houston probably won't be in contention next year.

* Thrift indicated there is a good chance the Orioles will select at least one player in the Rule V draft next week.

By the numbers

* Before the Orioles sign reliever Rick Aguilera, they'll have to determine whether, at age 35, he has the ability regularly to close games on consecutive days for a pennant contender. In 1995, he had a 1.74 ERA working on three or more days rest, and a 2.45 ERA pitching on one or two days rest, and a 4.26 ERA pitching on consecutive days.

* Another possible signing is free-agent reliever Randy Myers, age 34. He had a 2.40 ERA the first half of the year, a 5.61 ERA in the second half.

* This is why Sid Fernandez still has value on the open market: Left-handed hitters batted just .135 against him in 1995.

* Dennis Eckersley debated whether to return for 1996 after a subpar 1995. Either he's slowing down or hitters are catching up -- left-handers batted .347 against him, with a .504 slugging percentage in '95.

* Chicago first baseman Frank Thomas prefers hitting third in the lineup to cleanup, and he says he feels much more comfortable playing first base than designated hitter. His stats last year bear this out -- a .339 average hitting third and a .247 average batting fourth, and a .333 average as first baseman and .266 average as a DH.

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