Orioles general manager Pat Gillick figured that once Roger Clemens and Alex Fernandez, the best of the free-agent pitchers, reportedly accepted lucrative contracts elsewhere, then other clubs would start pursuing Jimmy Key.
So Gillick made a strong and fast offer for Key, and yesterday, about 24 hours after the pitcher became a free agent, he agreed to a two-year contract with the Orioles for $7.8 million.
Key, who turns 36 in April, was 12-11 for the Yankees last season, with a 4.68 ERA. But as Key recovered from major shoulder surgery, his performance improved. He was 3-6 in the first three months of the season, 9-5 thereafter. He pitched one of his best games of the season in Game 3 of the AL Championship Series, beating Mike Mussina in the Yankees' most important game of the playoffs.
Key bolsters a rotation that includes Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Rocky Coppinger. Gillick said the signing of Key wouldn't necessarily end the Orioles' effort to re-sign left-hander David Wells, and Gillick has a meeting scheduled this morning with Wells' agent.
But Toronto is making a strong bid for Wells, three years for $13 million, and may be prepared to offer him a fourth year. The Yankees, who wanted to re-sign Key, could focus on Wells, now that Fernandez will sign with Florida (five years, $35 million) and Clemens is drawing strong interest from the Chicago White Sox (four years, $28 million). It is doubtful the Orioles will bid as high as the Blue Jays have for Wells.
Instead, the Orioles are trying to trade for a pitcher. According to league sources, Gillick has talked to Rangers general manager Doug Melvin about left-hander Darren Oliver, 26, who was 14-6 for Texas last season. Melvin is looking for relief pitching, and may have interest in Alan Mills, as well as shortstop Manny Alexander. There are other quality starters available for trade: Houston's Darryl Kile, Kansas City's Tim Belcher, the Rangers' Roger Pavlik, Cincinnati's John Smiley and California's Chuck Finley.
Gillick, in Boston for the winter meetings, met yesterday with shortstop Mike Bordick. "It was a good meeting," Bordick said. "Very informal. We had a nice conversation. Basically, it was just to meet and express interest."
Gillick said he has not made an offer to Bordick, who will seek Cal Ripken's approval before signing with the Orioles. "Hopefully, that [conversation] will happen sometime soon," Bordick said.
Gillick will visit Cincinnati today to meet with free agent Tim Naehring, who appears to be the alternative if the Orioles don't sign Bordick. Naehring would play third, and Ripken would remain at shortstop.
But Gillick has said all along that pitching is a priority and that he needed to sign at least one of the better free-agent pitchers. (The Orioles offered Clemens a three-year contract for $18 million, but were told they weren't even close.)
Gillick moved quickly, making his first offer to Key within hours after he officially became a free agent.
Key wanted to re-sign with the Yankees, but they offered him only a one-year deal. "That made it easy to leave the Yankees," he said. "My first priority was going back to New York. But when they didn't offer me what I thought I deserved, it made it very easy not going back there."
Assuming that Key passes a physical examination scheduled for tomorrow, he will receive annual salaries of $3.5 million in '97 and '98, with signing bonuses and deferred salary making up the difference. A total of $300,000 will be deferred from his '98 contract, pushing the value of his deal to $7.8 million.
Key is a Type C free agent, and the Orioles don't have to give the Yankees a compensatory draft pick. Instead, New York will receive a sandwich pick, between the first and second rounds of the draft. If the Orioles don't protect Key in the expansion draft next fall and he is taken by Tampa Bay or Arizona, the Orioles will have to pay him $200,000.
Gillick also agreed to compensate Key for travel expenses incurred when Jordan, his 7-year-old daughter, travels from New York to visit him. "Pat knows how important that is to me, and that helped a lot," said Key, who played for Toronto when Gillick was GM.
Key has exceptional control of his changeup, and he ranks eighth among all active pitchers for walks per nine innings (2.2).
"The guy's a great competitor," said Gillick. "He's had one of the better records for left-handers in the league [at least 12 wins in 11 of the past 12 seasons]. I like the tempo he sets when he's on the mound. He doesn't waste any time. He keeps his defense on its toes. I like that a lot."
Key pitched 169 1/3 innings in 30 starts last year, less than six innings a start, but those numbers are reflective of the bullpen strength of the Yankees. Mariano Rivera would often pitch the seventh and eighth innings.
"I'm hoping to carry the games deeper," Key said.
The Key file
Born: April 22, 1961.
Highlights: Finished second in 1987 Cy Young balloting to Roger Clemens. Went 2-0 with 1.00 ERA vs. Atlanta in 1992 World Series. After signing as a free agent with Yankees, went 18-6 with 3.00 ERA in 1993. Named the 1994 AL Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. In 1994, became first Yankees pitcher to start an All-Star Game since 1969. Went 1-2 with a 5.64 ERA in 1995 before season ended with rotator cuff injury. Won clinching game for Yankees in 1996 World Series vs. Atlanta.
Yr, Tm, IP, W-L, BB, SO, ERA
'84 Tor, 62, 4-5, 32, 44, 4.65
'85 Tor, 212 2/3 , 14-6, 50, 85, 3.00
'86 Tor, 232, 14-11, 74, 141, 3.57
'87 Tor, 261, 17-8, 66, 161, 2.76
'88 Tor, 131 1/3 , 12-5, 30, 65, 3.29
'89 Tor, 216, 13-14, 27, 118, 3.88
'90 Tor, 154 2/3 , 13-7, 22, 88, 4.25
'91 Tor, 209 1/3 , 16-12, 44, 125, 3.05
'92 Tor, 216 2/3 , 13-13, 59, 117, 3.53
'93 NY, 236 2/3 , 18-6, 43, 173, 3.00
'94 NY, 168, 17-4, 52, 97, 3.27
'95 NY, 30 1/3 , 1-2, 6, 14, 5.64
rTC '96 NY, 169 1/3 , 12-11, 58, 116, 4.68
2300, 164-104, 563, 1344, 3.49
Yr., Opp, IP, W-L, BB, SO, ERA
'96, Tex, 5, 0-0, 1, 3, 3.60
Yr., Opp, IP, W-L, BB, SO, ERA
'85, KC, 8 2/3 , 0-1, 2, 5, 5.19
'89, Oak, 6, 1-0, 2, 2, 4.50
'91, Min, 6, 0-0, 1, 1, 3.00
'92, Oak, 3, 0-0, 2, 1, 0.00
'96, Bal, 8, 1-0, 1, 5, 2.25
31 2/3 , 2-1, 8, 14, 3.41
Yr., Opp, IP, W-L, BB, SO, ERA
'92, Atl, 9, 2-0, 0, 6, 1.00
'96, Atl, 11, 1-1, 5, 1, 3.97
20, 3-1, 5, 7, 2.66
Pub Date: 12/09/96