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With three stars unsigned, Gillick fine-tunes his rule

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick will bend his own rule as he attempts to re-sign Mike Mussina, Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson to contract extensions.

Last year, Gillick would not discuss contract extensions once spring training began. This seasons, he's pushing that deadline back to Opening Day, April 1.

"I just think that's the sensible and fair thing to do," said Gillick. "We're talking to two or three guys, working on some things. We've got to show them some respect, considering how much they've meant to this franchise."

The Orioles are well into negotiations with Mussina, though they are far from reaching an agreement. Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, is looking for nothing less than what the Florida Marlins gave right-hander Alex Fernandez, five years and $35 million, and the Orioles' three-year offer, with a fourth-year option, is worth about $20 million, guaranteed. Mussina is eligible for arbitration, with his hearing scheduled for Feb. 21.

According to league sources, Ripken is seeking a three-year deal worth between $7 million and $7.5 million a year. Ripken is slated to earn $6.2 million this year.

The Orioles are not actively talking with Anderson, who rejected a two-year, $8 million extension offer in the fall. The team likely will turn its attention to Anderson if and when it signs Mussina and/or Ripken.

Talks with Mussina and Ripken will resume this week.

Coming on strong

A half-dozen players who will have breakthrough seasons in 1997:

1. Everybody knows Gary Sheffield is a great hitter. But this year, everybody will know the Marlins right fielder is the best right-handed hitter in the game.

Said one NL manager: "With the protection he has around him now, Shef is going to have a monster year. It's scary the kind of numbers he's going to put up. He's got nine years in the majors, but everybody forgets this guy is just 28 years old. He's getting better and better and better."

NL MVP this season: Gary Sheffield.

2. The waiting is over for the Toronto Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado, who hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs last season. In the middle of an improved lineup, he'll do even better.

3. Most scouts really like what they saw of Milwaukee pitcher Scott Karl last season (13-9, 4.86 ERA), and they expect he's only going to get better with time.

4. Houston Astros left-hander Mike Hampton has gradually improved over four seasons in the majors, and he's 24 years old. He'll win 15 games this year, at least.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Darren Dreifort will establish himself as a top-flight setup man this year, and he'll be the closer next year.

6. The Detroit Tigers would've given away first baseman Tony Clark for almost nothing a couple of years ago. Now, says former teammate Brad Ausmus, "He's going to be one of those guys who's going to hit 40 homers every year."

Strong man wanted

The latest installment in the interminable Roberto Alomar-John Hirschbeck saga presents yet another outstanding example of why baseball desperately needs a commissioner.

It was nice that the umpires, players and executives agreed to form a committee last week, and it also was entirely meaningless, so long as no one has the power to enforce whatever suggestions they make.

Now, in a sport with real leadership (see the NBA, David Stern and Dennis Rodman; and the NFL, Paul Tagliabue and Bill Parcells), an autonomous commissioner would have aggressively dealt with the Alomar-Hirschbeck problem. He would've flown to Toronto the morning after and examined Hirschbeck's report, as well the Orioles' contention that the umpire escalated the whole incident by overreacting and then swearing at Alomar.

An autonomous commissioner would have made his ruling fast and efficiently, and all sides would have been obligated to abide by his decision and move on. Alomar suspended for 20 games, Hirschbeck penalized in an appropriate fashion. End of story.

But baseball has this terrific power vacuum. Since nobody really has the absolute authority to mete out unchallenged punishment or to investigate, nobody stepped in to overrule AL president Gene Budig's clearly inadequate decision.

Nobody has thoroughly investigated the Orioles' claim that Hirschbeck instigated and escalated the initial confrontation. Nobody seems to have considered action against the umpire. Apparently, nobody has the power to address the problem and tell everybody to shut up.

So all sides entrench themselves and fire away, which they've learned to do aggressively. Because of the might of the players association, Budig handed down a pathetic five-game suspension to Alomar. That prompted outrage from the umpires union and Richie Phillips, counsel for the umpires.

(The great irony is that Alomar will suffer more than anyone else because of Budig's weak ruling.)

The umpires union, maintaining that penalties being handed out aren't strong enough, attacks Alomar to strengthen its own position. Orioles owner Peter Angelos, seeing no hope of redress or relief or a thorough hearing, defends his player. He is asked, "Are you going to pay your player during his suspension?" Of course he's going to say yes -- he must.

Is he going to turn his back on Alomar when he and other members of the organization believe Hirschbeck is at least partially culpable? Angelos has no choice but to defend Alomar. Phillips criticizes this, and the whole mess will spill over into the regular season, once Alomar serves his suspension, or perhaps for the rest of Alomar's career.

This will continue on and on, so long as the game lacks someone with the authority to end the nastiness. If a commissioner had the power to act decisively last fall, then this would all be over.

Where have you gone, Bowie Kuhn?

Orioles meanderings

Orioles manager Davey Johnson said last week that he's thinking about hitting newcomer Eric Davis either third or fifth.

Randy Myers lost his job as Orioles closer in September. Going into spring training, though, the job is his. Pitching coach Ray Miller said so Friday.

One potential replacement for injured Texas outfielder Juan Gonzalez is Jeffrey Hammonds, who's certainly available for a trade. Gonzalez is out for 12 weeks with a torn thumb ligament.

Johnson will use the designated hitter to rest some of his regulars, such as B. J. Surhoff -- who may get lots of DH at-bats. "I think B. J. and everybody else that I DHed last year [besides Bobby Bonilla, of course] enjoyed DHing," Johnson said. "The season is a grind. I should've DHed Surhoff more. There probably would've been less wear and tear on him. I wish I had the flexibility for someone to play first and DH [Rafael] Palmeiro. I wished I had the flexibility of somebody else to play center, so I could DH Brady [Anderson] a little bit more. That just gives them a blow."

This year, Johnson will have Jerome Walton and Davis to play center if he wants to use Anderson as a designated hitter.

Miscellaneous

Al Martin, Pittsburgh's highest-paid player, will make $2.5 million this year. The Orioles have nine players who will earn more than that.

AL teams will be at a disadvantage in interleague games without the designated hitter. AL pitchers won't be as proficient as hitters or bunters, and beyond that, the AL rosters will be tailored to AL play -- that is, 11 or 12 pitchers, and fewer bench players.

The San Diego Padres have to move Rickey Henderson before the start of the regular season, but there is a very limited market for his services. San Diego may eventually be forced to release the future Hall of Famer.

The Orioles will have a whopping 61 players at their major-league camp, but the Pirates will have 70. That's only 10 fewer than the Pittsburgh Steelers had at training camp last summer.

The contract of Japanese star pitcher Hideki Irabu has been assigned to the Padres by trade. That means that all of the posturing of the New York Yankees is, in effect, tampering (the Yankees reportedly have discussed a $6 million offer with Irabu). The Yankees have no more claim on Irabu than the Padres have on Bernie Williams -- but you don't see San Diego trying to steal Williams from the Yankees.

Numbers and changes

The first four hitters in the projected Philadelphia lineup: Rex Hudler, Mickey Morandini, Gregg Jefferies and Rico Brogna, who combined for 33 homers last season. Yikes.

The addition of Jose Canseco means Oakland's outfield will include converted infielder Jason Giambi in left field and unconverted stone glove Geronimo Berroa in right field. Double yikes.

If Anderson leaves the Orioles after the '97 season, Cleveland could be interested in him as a replacement for Kenny Lofton.

By the numbers

It's easy to forget that Roberto Alomar actually did something other than spit last season:

He hit .357 at Camden Yards, compared with his .302 average on the road.

He batted .349 late in close games.

He had a .566 slugging average with runners in scoring position, nearly 40 points higher than his overall slugging average (.527).

He batted .284 with two strikes, almost 100 points higher than the major-league average in that situation (.191).

His .360 average when batting third was the best of any player in the majors (Colorado's Ellis Burks ranked second, at .351).

Alomar ranked second in the majors with 12 sacrifice flies, behind Bobby Bonilla (17).

Getting an early start

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