NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fumbling a phone that didn't ring, Orioles general manager Frank Wren admitted disappointment yesterday over the renovated club's inability to use the winter meetings as a stage for improving its starting rotation.
Wren's most recent setback occurred last night when free-agent left-hander Butch Henry stiff-armed the Orioles, apparently to sign with the Seattle Mariners, who were willing to guarantee him berth in their starting rotation.
The team's top need probably will remain unfilled through the holidays, according to Wren. Grandiose plans that once involved Todd Stottlemyre and Kevin Brown now center on second-tier arms, rehabilitating holdovers and non-tendered free agents.
"I would've loved to have left here with another starting pitcher and be ready for spring training. But I don't think that's realistic given what's happened here," Wren said.
The Orioles have been buffeted by the $105 million signing of free agent Brown, the looming, ponderous trade of Toronto Blue Jays ace Roger Clemens and a paucity of organizational depth.
Before the left-hander balked, the Orioles appeared closer to signing Henry than completing a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers for either Ismael Valdes or Dave Mlicki. Improving the rotation has been an organizational priority since the end of last season. However, the past week's frustration has given rise to subtle revisionism.
"The rotation we have now is better than most. A lot of guys would be envious of the five guys we have penciled in," Wren said.
The Orioles' crimes do not include lack of aggressiveness. Wren has cemented commitments with free-agent relievers Xavier Hernandez, Ricky Bones and utility player Rich Amaral. The deals will soon be finalized and likely announced after Sunday, the deadline for contracts to be tendered. Wren hopes to continue discussions with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Dodgers, among others.
"I can't say that it's not a disappointment we came away from here without a starting pitcher," said Wren, who will likely return only 40 percent of last season's Opening Day rotation. "That said, you're always trying to get better. If you're content to stay where you are, you're probably in the wrong business.
"Any time you spend four days in a situation like this and don't feel like you've gotten better, you're a little disappointed. It doesn't mean I don't like our club. I'd just like to continue to improve it, even if it's in little degrees."
For all their attempts at securing another starting pitcher, the Orioles are no more desperate than the majority of their competitors. They are, however, somewhat less flexible.
With the club handicapped by a lack of depth, these meetings underscored a lack of maneuverability in negotiations. Wren has declined overtures for No. 4 starter Sidney Ponson. He also has shopped Jesse Orosco for right-handed relief help while potential trade partners have insisted upon Arthur Rhodes.
"They must think we have dyslexia," said an official from another club. "They're offering a 42-year-old guy for a 24-year-old guy."
Orosco turns 42 next April, and his contract is guaranteed through 2000, severely inhibiting his marketability.
"I don't think it makes sense just for the sake of making a trade unless somebody is going to upgrade us considerably," Wren said. "To give up what it takes to get a starting pitcher doesn't make sense."
Wren all but conceded his inability to land a starting pitcher who could assume the No. 3 role behind Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson. He also downplayed his interest in 40-year-old Orel Hershiser, home run-prone Tim Belcher and left-handed reliever Jim Poole. The longer the meetings have continued, the more Wren has broached Scott Kamieniecki as a contender to rejoin the rotation. Kamieniecki did not pitch after Aug. 21 because of a herniated disk that required surgery Sept. 15.
"The only guys certain to be in the rotation are Mussina, Erickson, [Juan] Guzman and Ponson right now," said Wren, after being pressed by Henry's agent, Jim Turner, for a guaranteed role as a starter. "Anybody beyond that I would tell them they would be in the mix to be a starter -- [Rocky] Coppinger, [Chris] Fussell and whoever we may sign if it were a guy of that ilk."
Henry, 30, was "of that ilk." He made only two appearances with the Boston Red Sox last season after recovering from knee surgery and has made only seven starts since the end of the 1995 season.
The Orioles fell far short on deals for San Diego's Joey Hamilton, Houston's Mike Hampton and Pittsburgh's Jon Lieber. Hamilton went to the Blue Jays Sunday. The Chicago Cubs yesterday obtained Lieber -- a favorite of manager Ray Miller -- for outfielder Brant Brown. The availability of Willie Greene failed to raise the Pirates' pulse.
Without persuasive major-league talent, Wren will continue to make do with minor-leaguers Willis Otanez, Danny Clyburn, Fussell and Coppinger as trade chum. Third baseman Ryan Minor is no longer exempt from talks.
Wren reiterated the Orioles' lack of interest in pursuing Clemens because of his demand for a renegotiated, five-year, $75 million deal.
However, the Clemens saga has created a chilling effect for many clubs. The Orioles have experienced collateral damage, according to Wren.
"I think we've got a little more direction than some of the other clubs. We've got a couple clear-cut things we can pursue. We know we're not in Clemens [contention] so we don't have to sit around and see what transpires in terms of how it affects us payroll-wise and how it meshes with the players we would have to give up."
Added Wren: "We've been as aggressive as anyone; we're ready to do things. Some others have not."
The Orioles suffered their first loss of the meetings yesterday when Triple-A shortstop David Lamb was selected second overall by the Devil Rays in the Rule 5 draft. Lamb, 23, projected as a utility player, batted .301 between Bowie and Rochester last season. Lamb was the Orioles' third-round selection in the 1993 amateur draft, but had been passed by Jerry Hairston and Jesse Garcia among the system's middle infielders.
In the Triple-A draft, the Orioles picked up right-handed pitcher Mike McDougal from the St. Louis Cardinals and left-handed pitcher Ryan Lynch from the San Diego Padres.
Pub Date: 12/15/98