NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Orioles general manager Frank Wren arrives today at the Opryland Hotel, a place so immense that guests are given maps at check-in to avoid becoming hopelessly lost. Wren might need one just to get through the next 72 hours.
Having last week shown himself capable of improvisation, Wren will try to use baseball's winter meetings here as a stage for improving the club's tattered bullpen and an unbalanced bench, as well as for pushing to make free-agent pitcher Kevin Brown the game's highest-paid player -- perhaps its first $100 million player. Wren also will be confronted by a trade request from catcher Lenny Webster.
Brown's agent, Scott Boras, said last night that his client could reach a decision as early as today. The Orioles recently modified their offer to Brown to six years, prompting an organizational source to predict the former Oriole will land in Baltimore should he choose to return to the American League.
Boras is seeking to make Brown the game's highest-paid player, which would guarantee him more than $13.5 million a season, and yesterday suggested the bidding will reach seven years.
Wren will assess several trade possibilities while attempting to sign Brown but declined to mention specifics. However, the Orioles are known to be focusing attention on free-agent utility player Rich Amaral and right-handed middle reliever Xavier Hernandez.
"I think that it's premature to speculate," said Wren of four days rife with speculation and rumor. "We need to get there first and find out what other teams' needs are and how much interest they may have. I'd like to improve our pitching in a couple of areas. But there are some other things we've got under way."
Several Orioles officials arrived yesterday but Wren and manager Ray Miller won't check in until today. Wren has scheduled a late-morning meeting with Boras to firm the Orioles' position; meanwhile one club executive said last night that three finalists for Brown remain, including the Orioles.
According to Boras, "five or six" clubs still have a chance to acquire a pitcher who went 10-9 with a 3.60 ERA for the '95 Orioles before leaving via free agency. Brown's transformation as a pitcher coincided with his arrival in the National League and its more pitcher-friendly strike zone. In three seasons with the Florida Marlins and San Diego Padres, Brown is 51-26 and has compiled ERAs of 1.89, 2.69 and 2.38. He strong-armed his teams to the World Series the past two seasons.
The Orioles apparently are prepared to rewrite their financial philosophy again to reacquire Brown. They never have offered ++ any player a six-year contract, but they may also have to break with a policy of including significant deferred money without interest in almost every long-term contract.
By signing outfielder Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million deal, the Orioles already have rescinded their long-standing refusal to sign a $10 million player. They also made Scott Erickson the club's first pitcher to receive a five-year contract last May. After initially projecting a $70 million-$75 million payroll for next season, the Orioles now confront an $80 million payroll without Brown. Acquiring Brown would give them a payroll approaching $100 million, including deferred money.
The Orioles are competing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies, Padres and St. Louis Cardinals for a former employee who now may ultimately command a seven-year deal worth more than $100 million.
Boras frowns at deferred money, especially the Orioles' preference for it to be repaid with no interest. But he would not call it a deal-breaker.
"It depends on how things are structured," Boras said. "What matters is a contract's average annual value."
Wren said the Orioles have yet to fully establish the "parameters" their offer. Translation: They are virtually certain to increase the money today.
If the Orioles can't sign Brown, they may pursue Orel Hershiser.
While Wren did most of his heavy lifting last week by signing free agents Belle ($65 million), Delino DeShields ($12 million) and Will Clark ($11 million) surrounding the three-way trade for Charles Johnson, the Orioles remain short-handed on the bench. Wren still hopes to make the Orioles' reserves quicker, more balanced and better defensively. Amaral would fill each need as a player who played seven positions in 73 games. Though he played 43 games in left field, he also worked 19 times in the infield, primarily at first and second base.
Amaral made good on 11 of 12 steal attempts last season and carries a career success rate of 76 percent. His 11 steals would have ranked him third on a pedestrian Orioles team.
The Orioles now carry Rich Becker and Willie Greene as extra outfielders. Becker was a defensive disappointment after being claimed off waivers last season. He labored in a pinch-hitting role, batting .176 with no RBIs in 17 at-bats.
The need for quality right-handed relief is more obvious and potentially harder to fill. Still trying to compensate for the free-agent loss of Alan Mills and trading Armando Benitez for fTC Johnson, the Orioles have targeted Hernandez as one of their leading candidates to serve a right-handed setup role for new closer Mike Timlin.
Hernandez, 33, appeared in 44 games last season for the Texas Rangers, going 6-6 with a 3.57 ERA. Long known for durability, Hernandez appeared in 61 games as recently as 1996. His two-year term with the Rangers was interrupted by rotator cuff surgery in August 1997; he didn't come off the disabled list until last May 5.
The Orioles desperately need to replace Mills and Benitez, who made a combined 143 appearances last season.
Complicating the week is Webster's desire to be traded rather than serve as insurance behind Johnson. His agent, Ron Shapiro, plans to press Wren for a trade.
"I don't know what their plans are, but my thinking is I don't want to be in the situation where I play once or twice a week. I don't think the way I've played for the Orioles warrants that. I feel I have more than that to offer a ballclub," Webster said yesterday from his Fayetteville, Ga., home. "If another team would provide me the opportunity to play, I'd welcome that. A guy like Charles Johnson is a 130-140 game guy. If he gets hurt, I come in. If he doesn't, he catches 130 games."
Webster is coming off a breakthrough season in which he hit .285 with 10 home runs and 46 RBIs as de facto starter. His contract vested for this season, but he is eligible for free agency next October.
Having lost Charlie Greene to a waiver claim last week, the Orioles may be reluctant to deal Webster and leave themselves with Chris Hoiles as backup. Hoiles has experienced chronic back pain that left him too sore to squat and has requested a new role next season.
"I would love to stay in Baltimore. I've had a great time there, and it's a great city," Webster said. "But from a standpoint of wanting to play, coming back to Baltimore doesn't seem likely. That's just being realistic."
Pub Date: 12/12/98