Despite a lineup with a heavy left-handed bias and the need to "tweak" an undermanned bullpen, Orioles manager Ray Miller insists the past week's clubhouse renovation has restored the club to contender status.
The moves apparently ensure that the Orioles will cling to their distinction of having the game's highest payroll, as the acquisition of free agents Mike Timlin, Albert Belle, Delino
DeShields, Will Clark and the re-signing of left fielder B. J. Surhoff require a minimum commitment of $118.5 million over the next five years.
"We can compete," Miller said. "We've still got to tweak the bullpen, and I'd like to get another starter, but I like what's been done."
General manager Frank Wren hopes to acquire two right-handed relievers in the next two weeks while majority owner Peter Angelos has authorized the all-out pursuit of free-agent starting pitcher Kevin Brown. There is also a desire to improve the bench. Meanwhile, Wren has pieced together a projected starting lineup that includes five left-handed hitters, Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson and a fearsome cleanup presence in Belle.
"You want to be as deep as possible, but the lefties we have can hit lefties," Miller said last night from his Ohio home. "We've improved dramatically with Belle and Johnson. We're now able to shut down the running game. How many one- and two-run games did that cost us last year?"
Miller says he is especially excited about the new mix of strong personalities within a clubhouse he perceived last season as self-centered.
"Chemistry comes from success. Chemistry also develops early in the season," Miller said. "We might hear a few more chairs slapped together next season. You'd like to have a few more boisterous people, even during the game. Albert has a tendency to make everybody around him a little more intense. I don't know if last year was a combination of having so many free agents or the fact that our pitching was decimated. But it became a depressing situation for the club. There was too much 'I did my job' going around. It takes more than that."
Miller lauded Wren's improvising during the past several weeks, especially his recovery after Rafael Palmeiro's decision to accept a five-year, $45 million offer from the Texas Rangers after agreeing in principle on the Orioles' $50 million deal.
"Frank's done a great job under trying circumstances," Miller said. "I felt sorry for him with the Palmeiro situation. It's the ultimate no-no in a competitive business to give your word, then back off. All I can say is [Palmeiro] tried to bleed us as far as he could. That's obvious to me."
The "bleeding" has carried the Orioles far beyond their season-ending $72 million payroll. Last week's signing spree virtually ensures an $80 million payroll to begin next season. Benefits and the resulting luxury tax point to a total commitment of at least $100 million for next season's roster.
nTC Free-agent losses Roberto Alomar, Eric Davis, Alan Mills and Palmeiro earned a combined $17.8 million excluding incentives last season. The figure is dwarfed by the $26.667 million average annual value of contracts -- not factoring in deferred money -- awarded Belle, Timlin, Clark and DeShields.
Surhoff, the only returning player among the Orioles' eight free agents, made a $1.37 million base salary last season but will average $4.67 million during the three guaranteed years of a potential four-year contract.
And the increases hardly stop there.
In a trade involving arbitration-eligible players, the Orioles sacrificed closer Armando Benitez ($900,000) for Johnson ($3.5 million). Without factoring in an increase in Johnson's salary -- a virtually impossible scenario -- the addition of five players plus the retention of Surhoff represents a bump of $14.767 million in base salary.
The Orioles have no interest in bringing back injured starting pitcher Jimmy Key, who earned $5.4 million last season; however, they will press for Brown during this week's winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
Agent Scott Boras says eight teams are involved in the chase for Brown, who has grown into one of the game's elite pitchers since leaving the Orioles after the '95 season.
After helping the Florida Marlins to a world championship in 1997, Brown produced an 18-7 record and 2.38 ERA for the NL champion San Diego Padres last season.
Boras says he plans to pare a list of eight teams this week. All finalists must be willing to offer his client six years, he says.
"Baltimore is seriously in the hunt," Boras said. "Frank and Kevin know one another, and Kevin knows Baltimore. There are certainly factors working in their favor."
The Padres, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves are among the Orioles' competition. Boras says Brown's failure to include Baltimore among his recent tour of potential landing sites is only because Brown is familiar with the town, the facility and its ownership.
While remaining low-key about the club's chances, an Orioles official insisted last week, "We're going to make it very difficult for him to go somewhere else."
Brown's asking price will exceed $13 million per year, as Boras seeks to make him the game's highest-paid player. The Orioles are believed to have weighed in with a five-year offer between $11 million and $12 million a year. Should they reacquire Brown, a payroll approaching $90 million is possible.
The Orioles believe the acquisition of Brown necessary to challenge the world champion New York Yankees. By adding needed bullpen help, they could readily overtake the disarmed Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, according to their manager.
Pub Date: 12/07/98