The Orioles and the agent for catcher Charles Johnson exchanged salary arbitration figures yesterday, and the $1.5 million gap that existed between the two sides indicated a hearing likely will take place sometime next month.
Most players settle before their cases are heard, but Johnson was a pricey exception last year. He hit the jackpot while with the Florida Marlins, getting a raise from $290,000 to $3.3 million. The Marlins, having won the World Series with a collection of expensive free agents, were offering $2.25 million.
This time, agent Scott Boras is seeking $5.1 million for Johnson, while the Orioles have countered with a 9 percent raise to $3.6 million. Hearings will be scheduled between Feb. 1-21, and Boras indicated there's little room on his client's end for concessions.
"The number we filed was Charles Johnson's value. We took all the fat out of it," Boras said.
Johnson, 27, was dealt to Los Angeles in May, then was acquired by the Orioles on Dec. 1 in a three-team trade with the New York Mets that included young closer Armando Benitez.
Asked if Orioles general manager Frank Wren seemed eager yesterday to negotiate a long-term deal for Johnson and avoid arbitration, Boras said, "He gave the indication of just the opposite, that they were going to approach this in a very aggressive manner and Charles wasn't worth much of an increase."
"We wouldn't preclude it from happening," Wren said, "but I just don't think that's the priority at this time."
Negotiations on long-term deals need the consent of majority owner Peter Angelos, who is just returning from Cuba.
As for the amount of money that separates the two sides, Wren said, "It was somewhat what I expected just based on the history of it and the knowledge of where it was last year."
Wren said it's too soon to get a feel for whether an agreement can be reached before a hearing.
"I really won't know until we digest this a little bit and talk further," he said. "Each side takes their position prior to the filing of the numbers. You've been shadow-boxing. Now you know where you are."
Johnson has carved a reputation in baseball with his right arm. Last year, he threw out 39.8 percent of attempted base stealers, the highest mark in the National League. For his career, he has thrown out 41.8 percent.
Johnson also won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove last year, the most in succession for an NL catcher since Hall of Famer Johnny Bench won 10 straight from 1968 to 1977. Though he batted just .218, Johnson matched his career high with 19 homers and drove in 58 runs.
An inability to control the opposition's running game again was among the Orioles' chief liabilities last year, and upgrading the position became a priority after the club's fourth-place finish. Rumors of a trade for Mets catcher Todd Hundley intensified in November, but Johnson was deemed less of a health risk and a better solution to the base-stealing problem.
Hundley ended up in Los Angeles. The Orioles could wind up in arbitration.
Pitchers and catchers are due to report to the club's spring training complex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 19. Johnson will be there, but at what cost?
"The great thing about the process," Boras said, "is he'll show up for spring training ready to play."
Pub Date: 1/20/99