Orioles meet Cone offer likely made; Johnson, Gillick try to lure top target; Yanks' bid: 3 years, $15M; 2 Cuban pitchers pursued; Epstein may be hitting coach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Free-agent pitcher David Cone met with Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson late yesterday afternoon, as the Orioles intensified their courtship of the former Cy Young Award winner.

Cone, who reportedly has been offered a three-year, $15 million contract by the New York Yankees, apparently is the Orioles' No. 1 free-agent target this off-season.

Although Gillick quickly ended his pursuit of free-agent second baseman Craig Biggio and has waited for Roberto Alomar to lower his salary demands, he has aggressively tracked Cone. According to one club source, Gillick intended to extend a formal offer to Cone yesterday.

Should the Orioles sign Cone, they would effectively have two No. 1 starters, Cone joining Mike Mussina. Gillick and Johnson could not be reached for comment last night.

On other Orioles fronts:

* Baltimore's offers to relievers Randy Myers and Rick Aguilera were for two years, plus a club option for a third year. Aguilera was said last night to be seriously considering an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals. The Orioles were expected to extend an offer to free-agent utility man B. J. Surhoff.

* Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels flew to the Dominican Republic yesterday to scout two former members of the Cuban national baseball team, both right-handed pitchers. Livan Hernandez and Osvaldo Fernandez, both considered to be good to excellent major-league prospects, defected from Cuba during the summer, and the commissioner's office has decreed that clubs can begin bidding on the pair Dec. 15.

"Gary's going down there right now," said Matt Slater, an assistant in the Orioles' baseball operations. "We already had some of our scouts look at them -- Manny Estrada and Fred Uhlman Sr. -- but we haven't really discussed money. First we'll determine if we like them, and then we'll take it from there."

Fernandez is 29 and more polished, with a fastball in the high 80s and a good slider; he is projected by most as a third or fourth starter in the big leagues. Hernandez, 20, is believed to be a future star, with a fastball that has been clocked in the low 90s.

Should the Orioles decide to bid on the two pitchers, they will face stiff opposition from the Florida Marlins. Florida GM Dave Dombrowski flew to the Dominican yesterday, as well, to see Hernandez pitch last night. He wants the two pitchers because of their potential appeal to the large Cuban population in Miami. Some executives in the game expect the bidding to exceed $1 million for Hernandez.

* Orioles manager Johnson has talked about being his own hitting coach, but a club source acknowledged yesterday he is seriously considering hiring former Washington Senators first baseman Mike Epstein for that role.

Epstein, 52, has not worked in professional baseball since 1993. That year, he served a month as the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers' rookie ball team in Helena, Mont. Epstein, who played with the Orioles in 1966-67, left the Brewers by mutual consent, because of what Brewers farm director Fred Stanley termed "philosophical differences."

Epstein has a reputation for being bright, knowledgeable in the field of hitting with strong ideas, and intense. He has been trying to land a job since leaving the Brewers and is so aggressive in his approach that one major-league executive refers to him as Omni -- as in omnipresent.

AL sources indicate that Johnson met with Epstein at the GM meetings in Arizona last month.

* The Toronto Blue Jays offered arbitration to pitcher Al Leiter and second baseman Alomar yesterday, and similarly, the Chicago Cubs offered arbitration to pitcher Jaime Navarro. That means that should the Orioles sign any of the three, they must surrender a high draft pick as compensation.

* The Orioles' interest in free agent Mariano Duncan is as a second baseman -- meaning the Orioles are preparing for the distinct possibility they don't sign Alomar.

* The agent for designated hitter Harold Baines said last night that he was disappointed by the Orioles' handling of his client's departure. The Orioles severed ties with Baines on Wednesday, declining to offer him arbitration.

"Harold has been told he's not in their plans at any price," said Jack Sands. "I understand a new manager and GM are going to make their own decisions, but I was disappointed because I spoke to [club counsel] Russ Smouse two weeks ago and he conveyed to me the club was very interested in having Harold back for next year."

* Claude Osteen, the Orioles' highly respected Triple-A pitching coach, has moved on to become the Double-A pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When Johnson was named Orioles manager, Osteen figured it was time to move on. "Usually managers like to bring in their own pitching coach," said Osteen, who hoped to become the Orioles' big-league pitching coach. "I couldn't wait three years. I could be dead in three years."

0 Pat Dobson will be Johnson's pitching coach.

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