Willing to give Mike Fetters a tryout in his own backyard, the Orioles followed through yesterday by signing the free-agent right-handed reliever to a minor-league contract but virtually assuring him a place in their retooled bullpen.
Signing Fetters, a ground-ball pitcher suited to the tight confines of Camden Yards, guarantees that the club will begin the coming season with only three holdovers from last year's bullpen.
"I like the general makeup of our bullpen," general manager Frank Wren said last night. "We have three power guys [Heathcliff Slocumb, Arthur Rhodes, Mike Timlin] who can save games and then you have two guys leading into them, Jesse Orosco and Fetters, who have a solid history. We've also got some versatility with [Ricky] Bones and [Doug] Johns."
Fetters was offered a split contract only because the Orioles have a crammed major-league roster. Considered a lock to make the club, Fetters will receive $750,000 and a possible $50,000 in appearance incentives. More importantly, the Orioles will offer him the chance to prove the rest of a doubting industry wrong.
Fetters, 34, is coming off a 2-8 season split between the Oakland Athletics and Anaheim Angels in which an April calf injury caused a deterioration in mechanics and a resulting loss of velocity. Believing Fetters' troubles stemmed from an undisclosed arm condition rather than the calf, all but a few clubs thought Fetters too great a risk. At the invitation of agent Danny Horowitz, Wren dispatched regional scout Logan White to Fetters' Phoenix home to conduct an impromptu workout. White submitted a positive report and Wren intensified negotiations last weekend.
Regarding the tryout, Wren said: "We even supplied the catcher."
Just as the Orioles have renovated their bullpen, Fetters must rebuild his reputation as a consistent, durable pitcher. His contract represents a significant tumble from last season's $2.475 million.
"You want to get signed as quickly as possible, but it took a lot longer than I thought it would. The injury reports were bad on me," Fetters said.
Fetters reiterated that his problems were not arm-related, a significant point to an organization currently involved in a grievance related to their aborted December signing of free-agent Xavier Hernandez, who was found to have a slight rotator cuff tear after agreeing to the Orioles' two-year, $2.7 million offer. Because the Orioles did not guarantee the contract, they did not demand that Fetters undergo a physical. Instead they relied on existing medical reports.
"No one with any other team asked me about [the injury]. Everyone assumed it was my arm. I actually tore a calf muscle covering first base in my second appearance last season. I came back quicker than I should have and it was an uphill climb the rest of the way," Fetters said.
In 60 games, Fetters' ERA rose to 4.30, nearly a point above his career 3.45 ERA, and he especially labored while pitching from the stretch. Hitters reached him for a .312 average with men on base compared to .215 with bases empty.
"I wasn't happy with the whole season. It wasn't acceptable," Fetters said. "I intend to prove I'm still a quality major-league pitcher."
The 10-year veteran has spent his career with the Angels, Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers. A former teammate of Orosco and B.J. Surhoff, Fetters saved 71 games from 1994-96 with the Brewers and had a 1.87 ERA in 1992. He lost his closer role to Doug Jones in 1997 before joining the Athletics prior to last season. Desperate for bullpen help in their unsuccessful playoff push, the Angels traded for him last August but made only a token offer to retain him as a free agent.
Fetters said he had several options but selected the Orioles because he perceived them as the only possible contender among the interested teams. "I've never begun a season with a team expected to make the playoffs," he says. "I think the Orioles have more than a chance."
Fetters will be one of 14 nonroster players invited to training. The others are: pitchers Terry Burrows, Dave Evans, Doug Linton, Carlos Medina and Matt Snyder; catchers Tim DeCinces, Julio Vinas and Jayson Werth; infielders Esteban Beltre and Jesse Garcia; and outfielders Darnell McDonald, Mike Murphy and Ricky Otero.
O's bullpen roles
Pitcher Role '98
M. Timlin Closer Sea.
H. Slocumb RH setup Sea.
M. Fetters RH mid/long Ana.
J. Orosco LH setup O's
A. Rhodes LH mid/long O's
D. Johns Long O's
R. Bones Long K.C.
Pub Date: 2/05/99