NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Los Angeles Dodgers overcame geographical bias and a runaway marketplace to derail the Orioles' run at Kevin Brown yesterday, signing the free-agent right-hander to a record seven-year, $105 million contract.
Left without their off-season priority, the Orioles were left to regroup while hedging on how far they actually would have gone to obtain a pitcher club officials maintained could have restored them as challengers for the American League East. Orioles general manager Frank Wren arrived at the Opryland Hotel earlier in the day, never having received a chance to counter the Dodgers' staggering offer.
How far the Orioles went remains murky. Brown's agent, Scott Boras, said all finalists had tendered six-year offers, a claim Wren denied. However, the disagreement appears a matter of semantics. Boras made known that any club unwilling to cross the threshold of six years should bow out. Though they never attached a dollar figure after making an initial five-year, $55 million bid, the Orioles remained in contention and were scheduled to meet yesterday with Boras, though they were clearly unwilling to go where the Dodgers didn't fear to tread.
"I can't say we established a ceiling I just think we had a comfort level at a certain place, and I don't think we would have gone above that," Wren said. "I don't want to say what that comfort level was but it wasn't in the neighborhood of $105 million."
"We were not going to give him a seventh year," said majority owner Peter Angelos.
Brown met with every finalist except the Orioles, a move Boras attributed to Brown's familiarity with the club and its ownership. Presented a list of teams willing to consider a six-year framework, Brown listed his preferences in order. The Orioles were no better than third on the pitcher's final list.
"If we hadn't received a seven-year offer from the Dodgers we would have gone to the Rockies next," Boras said.
The deal dwarfs the seven-year, $91 million contract awarded catcher Mike Piazza by the New York Mets on Oct. 27. Its $15 million average annual value eclipses the $13.33 million average given free-agent first baseman Mo Vaughn by the Anaheim Angels. Malone insists the Dodgers will trim payroll so that they enter 1999 with an $80 million payroll. As currently constructed, a figure of $88 million appears likely.
Brown's contract calls for a $5 million signing bonus, a $10 million salary next season and $15 million payments each of the next six years.
Brown, who turns 34 in March, has only one 20-win season in 10 full campaigns but has emerged as the National League's most dominant pitcher the past three seasons. In that time Brown went 51-26 with a 2.33 ERA and steered the Florida Marlins and San Diego Padres to Series berths. Even given those credentials, Wren was unsure whether the Orioles could have closed a deal given the same opportunity as the Dodgers.
"If given the opportunity and that's the criteria and you've got the deal, then you've got to really analyze it and think hard, but I think six years might have been a deal-breaker for us," Wren said.
Brown will be 41 in the final season of his contract. Malone minimized age as a consideration, describing Brown as "unique and special in that regard" as well as "the most durable pitcher in the major leagues at this time."
Previously, the Orioles had made reacquiring Brown -- a 10-9 pitcher despite a 3.60 ERA with them in 1995 -- the centerpiece of what they envisioned as the league's premier starting rotation. But Wren, who spoke with Boras on Friday afternoon, never received a chance to match the unprecedented Dodgers offer.
"The question was which club to begin with," Boras said. "The Dodgers' ability to work and deal with entertainment people was something that opened doors."
Central to the talks was finding a way to bridge the three time zones between L.A. and Brown's family in Georgia. Early in the process, many doubted the Dodgers could overcome that distance. But the matter was addressed during a visit by Brown and Boras two weeks ago and, according to Boras, the Dodgers never surrendered the momentum.
Malone rationalized the signing by saying if the Dodgers hadn't made the monstrous offer, another club would have. Boras told Malone two other clubs were prepared to trump the $105 million package if he hesitated. Malone believed Boras and the offer was made.
"I would have to say we would be the favorites to win the division," said manager Davey Johnson.
The landmark agreement, worth more than several major-league franchises, was struck around 3: 30 a.m. yesterday after a four-hour bargaining session in which the Dodgers were given first opportunity to make a seven-year offer. Boras and Malone celebrated with a four-mile jog around the sprawling Opryland complex. The contract includes a no-trade clause, no deferred money and a provision allowing Brown's family use of a Fox charter plane for up to 12 times a year. The Dodgers will fly his family from its Macon, Ga., home to the Burbank, Calif., airport.
"I think the real question for Kevin Brown was that he wanted to go to a place that allowed him to achieve goals for his family and for his career," Boras said. "The one thing the Dodgers did at the forefront was create a way for an East Coast family to become a West Coast family."
Malone chafed at suggestions that the Dodgers are setting up the same kind of special treatment that rankled the Orioles clubhouse.
"There are special arrangement for plenty of players," he said. "Players wanting to win realize that and accept it. If anyone doesn't they only need to make it known and we'll accommodate them."
The Fox charter must not have been available yesterday as Brown chose not to make the flight from Atlanta to attend an afternoon news conference.
In a prepared statement, Brown said, "I am looking forward to being part of the re-establishment of a winning tradition. I am excited that I will be there to see that re-establishment happen. I was impressed not only with Kevin Malone and [Dodgers president] Bob Graziano but with Dodger ownership as well. They made it clear they plan on being competitive year-in and year-out."
The Orioles now must scramble to fill a rotation unchanged since last season. Boras client Tim Belcher, 40-year-old Orel Hershiser, soft-tossing Bob Tewksbury and former Oriole Ben McDonald -- all free agents -- are options.
Belcher allowed a major-league high 37 home runs last season and is poorly suited to Camden Yards' claustrophobic confines. Hershiser was considered last winter before the Orioles signed Doug Drabek to a one-year, $1.8 million contract. (Drabek finished 6-11 with a 7.29 ERA; Hershiser went 11-10 with a 4.41 ERA with the San Francisco Giants.) McDonald is rehabilitating NTC from an arm operation that sidelined him all of last season.
The Orioles may explore the possibility of acquiring A's left-hander Kenny Rogers. Rogers, 34, is coming off a 16-8 season in which his 3.17 ERA ranked third in the American League to Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez.
Having designated reserve outfielder Rich Becker for assignment, the Orioles also are shopping ill-fitting outfielder Willie Greene. The Orioles acquired Greene from the Cincinnati Reds for Jeffrey Hammonds on Aug. 10, but Greene provided mostly disappointing returns before he suffered a late-season neck injury. Defensively suspect, Greene batted . 150 with one home run and five RBIs in 24 games for the Orioles. Finances also conspire against Greene: he is arbitration-eligible after making $1.75 million last season.
The Orioles are close to signing free-agent utility player Rich Amaral and right-handed reliever Xavier Hernandez but will apparently wait until after the meetings to finalize any deals.
The top five contracts with averageannual values of $10 million or more:
Player, Club ............. Yrs ...... Avg.
Kevin Brown, LA ......... '99-05..... $15.0M
Mo Vaughn, Ana........... '99-04..... $13.3M
Randy Johnson, Ari....... '99-02..... $13.1M
Mike Piazza, NYM......... '99-05..... $13.0M
Albert Belle, O's........ '99-03..... $13.0M
Pub Date: 12/13/98