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Near-Oriole Hernandez signs 1-year Astros deal; Medical report led O's to rescind $2.5M offer


The Orioles parted company yesterday with reliever Xavier Hernandez, who signed a one-year contract with the NL Central-champion Houston Astros less than two weeks after the Orioles deemed his right rotator cuff too fragile to merit a two-year, $2.5 million deal.

Though Hernandez never appeared in an Orioles uniform, he is virtually certain to be appearing in a grievance hearing against the team.

Hernandez, 33, signed with the Astros, his original team, only after health questions spooked the Orioles. Off the market for four weeks, Hernandez accepted an offer worth roughly 20 percent the Orioles' initial offer.

Orioles general manager Frank Wren had hoped to use Hernandez as part of his makeover of the bullpen. Hernandez made 46 appearances last year with the Texas Rangers, going 6-6 with a save and a 3.57 ERA.

He underwent season-ending surgery on the rotator cuff in August 1997 and began last season on the disabled list, finally making the first of 46 appearances on May 5. Hernandez averaged 48 appearances the past five seasons and had initially been projected in a right-handed setup role for Mike Timlin.

After rescinding their offer to Hernandez, the Orioles signed Heathcliff Slocumb to a one-year deal and anointed him the bridge to Timlin. The club also is interested in free agent Mike Fetters.

Wren downplayed any urgency in adding to his renovated bullpen, saying, "We feel good about where we are heading into spring training. We've already added Slocumb. Right now, we have three guys [Timlin, Slocumb and Arthur Rhodes] who can close, if necessary."

Though the Orioles announced last month they had reached agreement with Hernandez on a contract, he did not sign pending a physical. Faxes of the agreement were forwarded to the Player Relations Committee and the players association, at which point Hernandez's agent, Barry Meister, considered the deal final.

However, based upon the recommendation of team orthopedist Mike Jacobs, the club rescinded its offer earlier this month. A source familiar with the situation said a small tear of the rotator cuff was discovered.

Meister immediately filed a grievance, which he intends to pursue barring a settlement. Attempts to reach a compromise went nowhere; the Astros were able to sign Hernandez despite guaranteeing only $250,000.

"We're extremely disappointed based upon the original agreement that Xavier won't be a member of the Orioles," Meister said. "We recognize it for what it is: a grievance situation."

Meister maintains his client was examined by several other team doctors who gave their clubs clearance, and claims the Orioles "reneged" on an agreement that carried no contingency.

Wren offered no comment on the situation, given the pending grievance.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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