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O's look for battery to provide a charge 5 pitchers, 2 catchers on team's top-10 list in free-agent chase


Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and assistant Kevin Malone will draw up a free-agent wish list sometime in the next few days, like children writing requests for Santa Claus.

The list compiled by the Orioles' officials will be a little more complicated than a recitation of toys and video games, however. This list will be molded within financial parameters -- presumably, owner Peter Angelos will establish these -- and full of contingency plans. And it will look something like this:

1. Pitcher John Smoltz

Imagine Smoltz, 29, using his slider to strike out New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams in a big Camden Yards series in September. Imagine the Orioles countering Andy Pettitte and David Cone with Smoltz and Mike Mussina.

Now forget about it. Malone guesses the Orioles have about a 15 percent chance of signing Smoltz, but it's probably closer to 1.5 percent. The Cy Young Award winner has built a house in Atlanta, where he is comfortable, and he has strong friendships on the Braves. The only chance for the Orioles will develop if Atlanta, which must re-sign Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux after next year, decides it doesn't want to pay Smoltz $6.5 million to $7 million a year.

Boston Red Sox veteran Roger Clemens is in this category, too, attractive to the Orioles but virtually unsignable.

2. Pitcher Jaime Navarro

He is the best pitcher available after Smoltz. At 29, and coming off a solid season in which he went 15-12 with a 3.92 ERA for the Chicago Cubs, Navarro has pitched 200 or more innings in five of the past six seasons. And the Orioles won't have to set any financial records to sign him (though Angelos has been willing to spend a lot of money, he usually shies from setting salary standards).

Navarro probably will command a three- or four-year contract, at around $4.5 million a year. The Orioles can sign him without necessarily driving up the price for Mussina, who will be eligible for free agency after next season.

3. Center fielder Darryl Hamilton

The Orioles wanted Brian McRae badly. But once McRae re-signed with the Cubs, Hamilton became the only pure center fielder remaining on the market. Beyond him, there is a collection of corner outfielders, role players such as Mark Carreon and Willie McGee.

Hamilton, who will be 32 next season, had a poor season in '95. So he gambled and signed a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers, hoping to re-establish his value and test the free-agent market again after the '96 season. The gamble paid off: He hit .293 and scored 94 runs. Gillick and Malone are meeting with his agent this week, and if they can sign him, Brady Anderson would be shifted to left field, and probably dropped into the middle of the batting order. If the Orioles can't sign Hamilton, Anderson probably would stay in center, and the Orioles would have to go after somebody such as Shane Mack.

4. Pitcher David Wells

The Orioles would like Wells, who demonstrated the ability to be a big-game pitcher, to return. What the Orioles don't know is how much it's going to take to re-sign the left-hander, who wants a three-year contract at around $4 million a year. The Cubs and Cleveland Indians, among others, are expected to court Wells, and they'll drive up the price.

5. Catcher Terry Steinbach

He's the best available, a great handler of pitchers, and he hit 35 homers last season. Oakland cut him free Friday, leery of the $4 million-plus Steinbach would have commanded in arbitration. He could get something close to that in the free-agent market, and has said in the past the Orioles are a team he would consider.

But the Minnesota Twins are expected to pursue Steinbach, who lives a few miles from the Metrodome. He might decide to play at home, as Paul Molitor did. The Colorado Rockies are another potential suitor. It's a long shot the Orioles will explore.

6. Shortstop Walt Weiss

Property of the Rockies, he is available in a trade, steady defensively and a strong fundamental player. He would come relatively cheap, $2.05 million in 1997, plus a $1.5 million option for 1998. He is proven, something that's going to be important for whoever replaces Cal Ripken at shortstop.

But the Orioles don't match up well in trade talks with the Rockies, who are looking for catchers and power pitchers. The Orioles have no big-time catching prospects in the higher levels of their minors, and they covet their power pitchers for the same reason the Rockies want power pitchers -- it's important to have strikeout pitchers in hitters' parks such as Camden Yards and Coors Field. It'll be hard for the Orioles to land Weiss.

7. Catcher Joe Girardi

He hit just two homers in 1996, but he is widely respected, nonetheless, for his ability to catch and throw, and excellent fundamentals. Girardi is a great bunter, good at putting the ball into play, and he can run well for a catcher (remember his triple in the clinching game of the World Series?).

No wonder the Yankees will probably re-sign him. Other catcher alternatives for the Orioles: Tom Pagnozzi, Benito Santiago, Kirt Manwaring and Joe Oliver.

8. Shortstop Kevin Elster

If the Orioles could get Elster cheaply, at $1 million a year, he probably would be their first option as the replacement for Cal Ripken. But Elster's agent says he wants $3 million a year, and that could be too rich for the Orioles.

Other shortstop alternatives would be Shawon Dunston, a good offensive player if somewhat erratic on defense and injury prone; or a trade for the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jay Bell, who makes $4.8 million.

9. Reliever Mike Jackson

He has nasty stuff and has proved he's beyond his elbow problem. He pitched in 73 games for the Mariners last year, giving up only 61 hits in 72 innings. Relief alternatives: Eric Plunk, Jim Corsi.

10. Pitcher Kevin Tapani

He is the first alternative if the Orioles can't sign Smoltz, Wells or Navarro. Tapani, 33, went 13-10 with a 4.59 ERA for the Chicago White Sox, a solid season. Other alternatives: right-handers Shawn Boskie and Bob Tewksbury and left-hander Terry Mulholland.

Orioles' wish list

1. John Smoltz, P

Numbers: Opponents batted .216 against him, with a .260 on-base average.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He had best year of his career, going 24-8.

What he won't tell his grandkids: Pitching in the middle of such a good rotation probably takes a lot of pressure off him. If he leaves, he would lose that protection.

2. Jaime Navarro, P

Numbers: From the seventh inning on, opponents batted .217 against him last year.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He finished strong, winning 12 of 18 decisions after May.

What he won't tell his grandkids: He had a couple of run-ins with manager Jim Riggleman after Navarro showed up teammates with his actions on the mound.

3. Darryl Hamilton, CF

Numbers: He is a classic slash-and-burn hitter, averaging 1.82 ground balls to every fly ball in '96.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He had career-highs in hits, at-bats, runs and walks.

What he won't tell his grandkids: His on-base average of .348 was 14 points lower than the AL average for leadoff hitters (.362).

4. David Wells, P

Numbers: He walked 51 hitters in 224 1/3 innings, one of the best ratios in the AL.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He started the Orioles' only win in the AL Championship Series.

What he won't tell his grandkids: His performance and conditioning were erratic early in the season.

5. Terry Steinbach, C

Numbers: Steinbach accumulated 61 extra-base hits, far and away his career high.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He drove in 100 runs for the first time and hit 35 homers, 20 more than his previous career high.

What he won't tell his grandkids: He hit .225 in close and late situations.

6. Walt Weiss, SS

Numbers: He had a .381 on-base average, and scored 89 runs while batting eighth most of the season.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He hit eight homers, a pretty good total for a singles hitter.

What he won't tell his grandkids: He benefited tremendously from Coors Field, hitting .337 at home and .227 on road.

7. Joe Girardi, C

Numbers: He had 11 sacrifices, stole 13 bases, and during the past five years he hit two ground balls for every fly ball, a sign of someone who knows his strength.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He was the catcher of the best team in baseball.

What he won't tell his grandkids: Jim Leyritz is a superlative reserve who took pressure off Girardi.

8. Kevin Elster, SS

Numbers: He hit 24 homers, after hitting a total of 35 in his previous nine seasons.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He went from being just about out of baseball to an everyday shortstop.

What he won't tell his grandkids: He was just about out of baseball from 1991 to 1995, returning from injury.

9. Mike Jackson, P

Numbers: Opposing right-handed hitters batted .201 against him.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He proved he was healthy, pitching in 73 games for Seattle manager Lou Piniella.

What he won't tell his grandkids: Jackson started slowly, with a 4.95 ERA, and gave up nine homers in 40 innings before the All-Star break.

10. Kevin Tapani, P

Numbers: He has at least 10 wins in each of the past seven seasons.

What he'll tell his grandkids about '96: He pitched 225 1/3 innings and walked only 76 hitters, striking out 150.

What he won't tell his grandkids: He was awful down the stretch, going 3-3 with a 6.95 ERA in August and 1-2 with a 6.59 ERA in September, allowing 18 homers in his last 71 1/3 innings.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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